Expect Wolf Pack defense to improve
The Nevada Wolf Pack football team’s defense is going to get better.
Just be patient.
“I’m never going to stop believing in these guys,” Wolf Pack safety Asauni Rufus said after Saturday’s 45-42 loss to the Air Force Falcons. “I don’t think we’re out of it as a defense. I think we can definitely improve and I think we will.”
If there’s anything this strange, confusing, frustrating and eye-opening Wolf Pack season has taught us, it’s we need to trust the process. The offense, don’t forget, was a dysfunctional mess the first five games of the year. The last three weeks it has been among the best offenses in the nation, averaging 40 points and 518 yards a game.
“We can be one of the best offensive teams in this conference,” Pack coach Jay Norvell said.
That has already happened. No defense, not even Boise State or San Diego State, wants to play this Pack offense now. Expect similar improvement from this Wolf Pack defense over the final four games of the season against Boise (Nov. 4), San Jose State (Nov. 11), San Diego State (Nov. 18) and UNLV (Nov. 25).
“I have all the faith in the world in our defense,” Wolf Pack defensive end Malik Reed said.
Sometimes in football, like all religions, you must believe in what you can’t see. And we’ve definitely not seen this Wolf Pack defense play well the past two weeks.
The Pack defense has allowed 44 and 45 points the last two weeks to Colorado State and Air Force. In the two games the Pack defense allowed 1,199 total yards, 774 on the ground and 425 through the air. It has allowed 59 first downs. Greater Nevada Field’s Slaughter House this week has nothing on the Pack defense when it comes to presenting a frightening, gory mess.
“It’s not a good feeling,” Rufus said.
“We are kind of discombobulated right now,” Reed said. “We’re all on different pages.”
“It’s hard to talk about,” Pack linebacker Travis Wilson said.
It has been even more difficult to watch as the defense has squandered two amazing efforts by the Pack offense. But the problems on defense didn’t just start the last two weeks. This is a defense that’s arguably the worst in the nation this year and one of the worst in the Pack’s Division I-A history (since 1992).
For the second time in school history, the Wolf Pack has now allowed 40 or more points four times in a five-game stretch. The last time it happened (1950) the school dropped football the next year. The Pack is 115th (out of 129 FBS teams) in scoring defense (36.8 points a game), 110th against the run (216.6 yards), 124th against the pass (290.5) and 124th in total defense (507 yards).
If all those numbers remain about the same through the end of the year, this will be the worst Pack defense since the school made the jump to Division I-A in 1992. None of the previous 25 Wolf Pack FBS teams were this bad in all those categories. The 2001 team, for example, allowed 39.2 points but just 495 yards a game. The 2000 team allowed 38.7 points but just 434 yards a game. The 2013 team allowed 505 yards a game and 34.4 points a game. The 1999 Wolf Pack allowed 38 points and 470 yards a game.
The numbers, though, will not remain about the same. They will get better. Much better. You gotta have faith.
The last two games against Colorado State and Air Force have skewed everyone’s perception of this Wolf Pack defense. The Pack defense isn’t this bad. It’s just those two offenses were that good.
The Pack won’t play an offense as productive as Colorado State or Air Force for the rest of the year. Air Force is first in the Mountain West in scoring at 37.3 points a game and Colorado State is second at 33.9. Colorado State is first in total offense at 507 yards a game, Air Force is third at 461. Colorado State is first in passing at 311 yards a game and Air Force is first in rushing at 341 a game.
Nobody stops Colorado State and Air Force from scoring or piling up yards. Don’t beat up this Pack defense for doing what everybody else has done.
“They just ran (their offense) to perfection,” said Reed of Air Force.
“They ran their scheme well,” Rufus said. “It’s just quick. They get leverage on you pretty quick.”
The Wolf Pack has never stopped the Falcons’ triple option offense. Chris Ault couldn’t stop it in 2012. Brian Polian couldn’t stop it in 2013 and 2014 and now Norvell has fallen victim in 2017. The coach doesn’t matter. The year doesn’t matter. The players don’t matter. The stadium doesn’t matter. It’s an offense right out of 1932 and it will still be effective in 2032.
The Falcons are as well coached as any offense in the nation. They are football robots. They tell you what they’re going to run and dare you to stop it. And nobody does. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, a work of pigskin art. Few teams in any sport do one thing as well as Air Force runs the ball.
Air Force, which ran off an alarming 98 plays on Friday, had five drives of 10 or more plays. One drive lasted 20 plays and 9:47. The Falcons had seven drives of 50 or more yards. Air Force won the game by marching 62 yards in a dozen plays for a game-winning field goal and killed off the final 3:57.
“At the end of the day, the defense has to make stops,” Wilson said.
Those stops are coming. Just be patient.
The best rushing offense the Pack will face the rest of the year is UNLV, at 281 yards a game. The best passing offense the Pack will face is San Jose State, at 212 yards game. When the best you have to deal with on offense is UNLV or San Jose State, well, you’re in pretty good shape.
Boise State and San Diego State, the Pack’s other two opponents next month, are both ordinary this year on offense and getting worse each and every week. San Diego State has scored just 17 points the last two weeks combined in losses to Boise State and Fresno State. The Aztecs average just 363 yards and 26 points a game. Boise State averages just 337 yards and 28 points a game. They do that against the Pack, they’ll lose. The Pack offense will make sure of it.
The difficult part of this year’s schedule for the Pack defense is now over. What you’ve seen isn’t what you will get over the final four games. The numbers attached to this Pack defense, admittedly, aren’t pretty. But they’ve had to deal with Northwestern, Toledo, Colorado State, Washington State and Air Force, not to mention Fresno State, which is arguably the most improved team in the nation this year.
The improvement in the Pack defense, which now has two weeks to lick its wounds and sharpen its teeth for the final four games, starts now. The offense found its rhythm three weeks ago. The defense will find its groove starting Nov. 4 on Boise’s blue turf.
“Once we start playing together, the front end and the back end, we’ll be very good,” Wilson said.
That’s what happened to the Pack offense starting three games ago. Everyone — the quarterback, offensive line, wide receivers and running backs — started playing together. Everybody on offense now knows what everybody else is doing and when they’re doing it. And they’ve become an unstoppable force, sort of like Air Force’s triple option. Keep in mind the Pack defense also needs to learn how to play with this Pack offense. This Pack offense can tire its own defense out. This, after all, isn’t a ball control offense. It’s an explosive, scoring offense. They don’t give a defense much rest.
Nobody is saying this Pack defense will turn into the 1985 Chicago Bears. This defense likely won’t be impenetrable this year. But the improvement over the next four games will be noticeable. Don’t be shocked if this Pack team doesn’t lose another game this year. The Pack offense is that good. And the defense, unlike the last two nightmarish weeks, will be good enough.
It’s not like we haven’t seen this defense play well this year. The Pack manhandled Northwestern for three quarters in the season opener. It was solid against Toledo. It played well in the second half against Colorado State, Idaho State, Fresno State, Hawaii and Washington State. Heck, the Pack defense even played well for a handful of drives against Air Force, forcing two punts and two turnovers.
“I think our schemes are fine,” said Norvell, defending his defensive coaches. “We have very capable schemes. We just have to be more physical and aggressive on defense.”
With Norvell, it’s all about positive reinforcement. His answer for everything, it seems, is, “What we’re doing is right. We believe in what we’re doing. We just have to do it better.”
Believe him. It proved true on offense. It will prove true on defense.