Ten things to look for in Pack opener on Thursday
RENO – Ten things to look for tonight when the Nevada Wolf Pack football team opens its season Thursday night against the Eastern Washington Eagles . . .
1. Consistency from the Wolf Pack defense
Nobody expects the Wolf Pack defense to turn into the 1985 Chicago Bears or 2000 Baltimore Ravens. But improvement is needed on defense this season if this team wants to escape its rut of seven or eight victories a year. The key is not giving up big plays. Eastern Washington is not without weapons on offense but let’s face it. This is a Division I-AA offense with a bunch of guys Division I-A schools did not want. This is a program the Pack used to destroy two decades ago. The Eagles can’t be allowed to eat up chunks of Mackay Stadium’s plastic grass.
2. Colin Kaepernick’s right arm
Kaepernick, arguably the most exciting running quarterback in the nation, simply has to become more accurate with his right arm. The days of Kap’s Flap winging passes at his receiver’s feet or into Chris Ault’s arms on the sidelines need to end. Make no mistake, Kaepernick hasn’t been horrible (58.9 percent completion percentages, 20 TDs, 6 interceptions, 139.14 efficiencyrating last year). But the Pack needs his numbers to approach what Boise State’s Mr. Perfect, Kellen Moore, (161.7 efficiency, 39 TDs, 3 interceptions, 64.3 completion percentage) did a year ago.
3. Kickoff returns and punt returns
The Wolf Pack has not returned a kickoff for a touchdown since Del Bates did it in 1998, a stretch of 137 games. The Pack has not returned a punt for a TD since Marlon McLaughlin did it in 2001, a stretch of 106 games. A more consistent return game is a priority this season.
4. Kaepernick’s legs
The Pack quarterback needs 222 yards to pass (in order) Florida’s Tim Tebow, Central Michigan’s Dan LeFevour and Texas’ Vince Young to move into 12th place on the NCAA’s list of all-time rushing yards for a quarterback. Yes, he could do it Thursday night if he really wanted to. Kaepernick also needs 1,575 yards this season to top West Virginia’s Pat White to become the all-time rushing quarterback in history. He probably cannot do that against the Eagles. A nice, solid 225-yard effort by Crazy Legs Kaepernick will be a good way to start the year.
5. The new turf
Hey, it’s a game against a Division I-AA team on a Thursday night. Watching plastic grass grow might be the most exciting thing to look at. The Pack replaced its weather-beaten, worn-out FieldTurf (it was roughly the fifth best artificial surface in northern Nevada last year) with a new carpet this summer. It looks all pretty and nice. My only regret was that they didn’t paint the field silver (blue, as Pack fans know all too well, has already been taken).
6. Production on defensive line from someone not named Dontay
The Pack defense needs to put more consistent pressure on the quarterback, especially on third down. Everybody knows senior defensive end Dontay Moch will make quarterbacks tremble and stutter. Don’t worry about Dontay. Yes, he will likely see more double teams but he’s talented enough to fight through that. He’ll get his numbers (expect a dozen sacks and 15-20 tackles for losses). But can the Pack absorb the loss of Kevin Basped on the other side of the front four? A secondary, don’t forget, is only as good as its pass rush.
7. Can anybody here cover somebody?
The Pack secondary is, once again, in a state of transition. It’s time these guys knock down a few passes at crucial moments. Eastern Washington can throw the ball. Their quarterback (Bo Levi Mitchell) might sound like an extra from the movie Dukes of Hazzard but he can play, having started 19 games over the last two seasons at SMU. OK, before you break into a cold sweat, he wasn’t the SMU quarterback that shredded the Pack in the Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve. That was Kyle Padron. But you know Mitchell is excited to attack this Pack secondary after watching film of this battered, beaten and abused secondary last holiday season and this summer.
8. Crazy, sick rushing numbers
The Wolf Pack led the nation last year in rushing, averaging 345 yards a game. Those are numbers John Madden wouldn’t even allow in his video game. Will the Pack mix it up this year between the run and pass or will they feel pressure to approach what they did on the ground last year when they all but abandoned the passing game against weaker opponents? This would be an easy game to lay down a nice, solid foundation (750 yards, seven TDs?) for another ridiculous rushing season. The Pack will need to fight the urge to run, run, run.
9. The locals
The Pack has just eight northern Nevada players on its roster this year: Thai Ivery (Spanish Springs High), David Jamieson (Reno), Stephen Jeffers (Bishop Manogue), Duke Williams (Hug), Kyle Roberts (Reed), Jeff Nady (Douglas), Anthony Martinez (McQueen) and Brennan Locker (Reno). There are 70 from California.
10. Will everybody walk off the field in one piece?
The most important thing to worry about in a game like this is the injury report. The Pack cannot afford any bumps and bruises, not to mention surgeries and crutches, for key people when a dozen Division 1-A opponents still remain on the schedule.