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Football: Western Athletic Conference Preview

by Joe Santoro

An off-season of change hasn’t altered the goals of the Nevada Wolf Pack football program heading into the 2010 season.

“We want to beat Boise State, win the (Western Athletic Conference) and win the bowl,” senior running back Vai Taua said.

Those three things have never happened all in the same season since the Pack joined the WAC in 2000. But that isn’t going to stop this Pack team from trying for likely one last time as it prepares to join the Mountain West Conference as soon as 2011.

“This year everybody realizes what we have to do to be successful,” said quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Kaepernick, like all of the Pack seniors, will not get a chance to play in the Mountain West Conference. But nobody in silver and blue is worrying the Mountain West this season, Pack head coach Chris Ault warns.

“All I care about right now is this year and this team and trying to win the WAC,” Ault said.

Accepting the Mountain West’s invitation (with fellow WAC teams Boise State and Fresno State) wasn’t the only big change up on north Virginia Street this off-season. Ault also brought in a new defensive coordinator (former Pack linebacker Andy Buh) in yet another effort to pump some life into his struggling defense.

“He knows Nevada football,” Ault said. “He understands what we’re all about. He understands where we are, where we were and where we’ve got to be.”

“There’s a whole new attitude this year on defense,” defensive end Dontay Moch said.

All of the questions about this year’s Pack football team, once again, remain on the defensive side of the football.

“We’ve just been very inconsistent,” Ault said. “We just haven’t had that confidence on defense that you have to have to be able to play for championships. Where we have to go, where we have to make the biggest jump is on that side of the ball.”

Moch, last season’s WAC Defensive Player of the Year, is back at defensive end to lead the beleaguered group.

“Dontay Moch is special,” Ault said. “He can be a difference-maker and has to be. That’s the expectation this year.”

The defense is clearly under the spotlight this year once again.

Ault is hoping the front seven, particularly the linebackers, elevate their game to make up for an inexperienced secondary. James-Michael Johnson has been moved from outside linebacker to inside linebacker to provide leadership. Brandon Marshall also returns at outside linebacker.

“They (the linebackers) need to take ownership,” Ault said. “Last year they did a nice job of being a part of the team. But they weren’t big play-makers and they have to be big play-makers on this defense now.”

Ault, though, knows the Pack’s success this year (beating Boise, winning the WAC and winning a bowl game) will rest squarely on the shoulders of his defense. The offense, after all, averaged 38 points a game.

“I don’t expect us to just snap our fingers and suddenly the defense will get better,” he said. “But I do expect us to play hard and play with confidence.”

There were very few changes on offense.

Kaepernick, who passed for 2,052 yards and 20 touchdowns and rushed for 1,183 yards and 16 scores a year ago, is back for his senior year.

“Kap is the heart of this offense,” Ault said. “He is the main artery. He is going to continue to do what he does.”

“I’ve said it before,” Idaho coach Robb Akey said. “Kaepernick should have a big red S on his chest. The guy is superman.”

Taua, who ran for 1,345 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2009, is also back to lead the ground game. The Pack led the nation in rushing a year ago, averaging 345 yards a game.

“We want to set our legacy,” said Taua of the senior class.

The offense also returns its top four receivers in wideouts Brandon Wimberly, Tray Session and Chris Wellington as well as tight end Virgil Green.

“We’ve been a good offense and we’ll continue to be a good offense,” Ault said.

But can they beat Boise state, win the WAC and win a bowl game?

A look at the rest of the WAC teams:

BOISE STATE BRONCOS: The Broncos, who return 20 of 22 starters from last year’s perfect 14-0 team, are currently ranked third in the nation in the Associated Press poll. Their goals, obviously, are set higher than merely winning the WAC again.

“We haven’t lost our edge,” Boise coach Chris Petersen says. “We understand the target and the bull’s eye on our chest. We understand we get everybody’s A game. But we’ll be ready.”

Quarterback Kellen Moore (3,636 yards, 39 touchdowns) returns to lead an explosive offense that also returns wide receivers Austin Pettis (63 catches, 855 yards, 14 TDs) and Titus Young (79 catches, 1,041 yards, 10 TDs) and running back Jeremy Avery (1,156 yards).

It’s defense, though, that separates Boise from the rest of the WAC. The Broncos, the only WAC team to allow under 25 points a game last year (17.1), are led by Ryan Winterswyk on the defensive line and safety Jeron Johnson.

“Boise is the best defensive team in the conference,” Fresno coach Pat Hill said. “And it still takes defense to win championship games.”

The Broncos have dominated the WAC, winning seven league titles since joining the conference in 2001. Petersen has a record of 49-4 over the last four years and 31-1 in the WAC. And, oh yeah, the Broncos have never lost a home regular season WAC game, winning 56 in a row on their famous blue turf.

“This is going to be as challenging a year as we’ve ever had,” Petersen said. “The target is as big as it has ever been.”

IDAHO VANDALS: Robb Akey’s team finished 8-5 a year ago and capped the year with a thrilling 43-42 victory over Bowling Green in the Humanitarian Bowl.

“The challenge is out there to outdo what last year’s team accomplished,” Akey said.

The Vandals improved by six victories over their 2008 performance.

“The publicity we received from the Humanitarian Bowl has been priceless,” said Akey, who was 3-21 over his first two years (2007, 08) at Idaho. “When was the last time you saw the University of Idaho as the lead story on SportsCenter?”

Leading the way in the Humanitarian Bowl was quarterback Nathan Enderle. Enderle, who returns this year, passed for 2,906 yards and 22 touchdowns in 2009.

“I’m so proud of what Nate Enderle has done,” Akey said.

The Vandals lost running back DeMaundray Woolridge, who rushed for 979 yards and 18 touchdowns last year as a senior. But Shiloh Keo, who has 297 career tackles, returns for his senior year at safety.

“Some people say the Vandals are coming around and others are saying, ‘Hey, that’s a one-shot wonder,'” Akey said. “So we still have to have a chip on our shoulder. But I think these kids understand what’s in front of them. We’re out to prove we’re not a one-shot wonder, that last year was the beginning of a program.”

UTAH STATE AGGIES: Utah State finished 4-8 last year and hasn’t had a winning season since 1996 (6-5).

“We were not a good defense,” said coach Gary Andersen, whose team allowed 34 points and 455 yards a game in 2009. “We played hard, but not good. We have to take strides to be able to catch the top tier teams in our league. How do we do that? With defense. We have to play better defense. Just look at the numbers. They are not good.”

Linebacker Bobby Wagner, who led the WAC with 115 tackles last year, returns to anchor the defense.

Offense, though, is not a problem for the Aggies. Diondre Borel (2,885 yards, 17 touchdowns) returns at quarterback. The senior also rushed for 458 yards and six touchdowns a year ago.

“Diondre has prepared himself for a big senior year,” Andersen said.

The Aggies set a school record with 5,272 total yards on offense last year.

Robert Turbin, who led the Aggies with 1,296 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground last year, is expected to miss the entire season with a knee injury.

“We need to find a dynamic playmaker on offense to help Diondre,” Andersen said.

Andersen knows the losing cannot continue at Utah State. The Aggies are 13-46 overall since joining the WAC in 2005.

“It’s about winning and going to bowl games,” Andersen said. “At the end of three years if that doesn’t improve I know somebody else will be standing here wearing the same shirt I have on. I get that.”

HAWAII WARRIORS: Hawaii wants to start in 2010 like it finished in 2009.

“We won four of our last five games last year and that sets a good foundation,” coach Greg McMackin said. “And we have most of the guys back that played in those games (last year).”

The Warriors will continue to do what they do best — throw the football. Wide receiver Greg Salas, who led the WAC with 106 catches for 1,590 yards, is back. “I expect him to improve this year,” McMackin said. “We’re expecting big things out of Greg.”

Bryant Moniz, who threw for 2,396 yards and 14 touchdowns is also back. Moniz started eight of the Warriors’ last nine games.

“He’s gained 10-15 pounds and is throwing better than he’s ever thrown,” said McMackin, who is 13-14 in two seasons at Hawaii (6-7 last year). “He’s been first in everything we’ve done this off-season. He’s set a great example.”

The Warriors fell one victory short of a bowl game a year ago.

“We learned a great lesson,” McMackin said. “It was very disappointing. We put ourselves in position that last game (a loss to Wisconsin) but you can’t put yourself in that position in your last game. We wasted some ballgames last year earlier in the year. Our big lesson is that we cannot waste any ballgames. We have to win the close ones.”

FRESNO STATE BULLDOGS: The Bulldogs are staying closer to home this year.

“For the first time since I’ve been here (13 years) we have more home games (seven) than road games,” coach Pat Hill said. “The frequent flier miles won’t be as much this year.”

The Bulldogs, who are 100-66 in Hill’s 13 years, were 8-5 a year ago.

“Our offensive line is almost all back and we’re going to need those veteran guys because we’re breaking in a new group of receivers and running backs.”

Ryan Mathews, now with the San Diego Chargers of the NFL, led the nation a year ago in rushing with 1,808 yards. “I’ve been blessed with NFL running backs in the last few years,” Hill said. “And we’ve ridden those guys hard.”

Hilll expects to open up the Bulldogs’ passing game this season with returning quarterback Ryan Colburn (2,459 yards, 19 touchdowns last year).

“Ryan is a special, special guy,” Hill said. “He earned the job last year and played well for us.”

Linebacker Ben Jacobs and defensive end Chris Carter lead the Bulldogs defense.

NEW MEXICO STATE AGGIES: The Aggies are looking to be a little more offensive in 2010.

“Anytime you can’t score points you’re not going to win a lot of ballgames,” coach DeWayne Walker said.

New Mexico State scored just 11.5 points a game a year ago. They scored just 60 points total in the first half all season. No Aggie player scored more than three touchdowns all season long and the team gained just 2,981 yards for the year.

“It was a humbling experience,” said Walker of the 2-10 season. “I hope I never have to go through that again.”

Seth Smith (1,016 yards but just one touchdown) returns to lead the ground game.

“We kind of just ran him into the ground,” said Walker, UCLA’s defensive coordinator from 2006-08. “For the most part he was our only bright spot on offense.”

Also back is quarterback Jeff Fleming (789 yrds, four TDs).

“We had too many interceptions, not converting on third down, not scoring touchdowns in the red zone. Your quarterback needs to do those things for you,” Walker said. “We just need a quarterback to manage the offense and not screw it up.”

LOUISIANA TECH BULLDOGS: Head coach Sonny Dykes will take over the program for the departed Derek Dooley, who left to become the head coach at Tennessee.

“We’re going to play fast-paced football,” said Dykes, the former offensive coordinator at Arizona and Texas Tech. “We’re going to try to get as many snaps as we can, try to play fast.”

The Bulldogs will use a four and five-wide receiver spread offense.

“We have guys who can run and make plays,” Dykes said.

One of those guys is kick returner/ wide receiver Phillip Livas. “He’s a fun guy to watch,” Dykes said. “With a guy like that you have to figure out ways to get him the football.”

Transfer (from Tennessee) running back Lennon Creer is expected to do most of the running. Daniel Porter led the Bulldogs with 1,132 yards last year as a senior.

“Creer is a big kid, kind of a home run hitter,” Dykes said. “He’ll be a productive back for us.”

Ross Jenkins is back for his senior year at quarterback. Jenkins passed for 2,095 yards and 17 touchdowns last year.

“We’ve got to play well at quarterback,” Dykes said. “Whether it’s the NFL, college football or high school football. You’ve got to play well at the quarterback position to have some success.”

SAN JOSE STATE SPARTANS: Mike MacIntyre takes over at head coach for the retired Dick Tomey.

“I’ve always followed the WAC because I felt they were always on the cutting edge of offensive football,” said MacIntyre, the defensive coordinator at Duke the last two seasons.

MacIntyre plans on playing a half dozen or so players both ways this season, on offense and defense.

“I just felt we needed to do that to help our depth situation,” MacIntyre said. “And the kids love it. They are excited to do something to get away from their normal routine.”

The Spartans will be led by safety Duke Ihenacho (89 tackles in 2009) on defense and quarterback Jordan LaSecla (1,926 yards, 10 TDs) and running back Lamon Muldrow (592 yards) on offense.

MacIntyre takes over a team that went 3-10 a year ago (1-7 in the WAC).

“I’m not here to build a team,” MacIntyre said. “I’m here to build a program. I believe (San Jose State) is an absolute goldmine. There’s only seven Division I football programs in the state of California. There’s (over 1,000) high schools, 72 junior colleges and 40 million people in the state. Why can’t I find 22-25 young men that can be competitive in the WAC. I can. And I will.