Wolf Pack Football: Nevada set to take on New Mexico State
Chris Ault finally gave a promising, uplifting report with his State of the Union address this past week.
“Our offensive line played its best game of the season, no question,” said Ault of the offensive front he nicknamed “The Union” three decades ago. “They were physical, aggressive and very consistent with their effort.”
Ault’s reports on the progress of the Union the first six weeks of the season weren’t as flattering.
“We just weren’t playing up to our standards,” said Ault, whose Wolf Pack (4-3, 2-0) will take a three-game winning streak to New Mexico State (3-4, 1-2) on Saturday (5 p.m., 630-AM, Channel 21). “They weren’t playing badly but we expect more out of them.”
The criticism, it seemed, was a bit unwarranted. The Pack offense, after all, was still among the top rushing teams in the nation and Pack quarterbacks were still getting sacked just once every 35 pass attempts.
“We had been doing good things but we weren’t dominating anybody,” Pack offensive line coach Cameron Norcross said this week. “We expect to dominate.”
Ault clearly expects them to dominate.
“To a certain degree, maybe the criticism was a little unfair,” Ault said. “But that’s a veteran group. They accept the criticism because they know they can get better. They are big boys. They can handle it.”
The statistics might have said the Union was playing well. But Ault wasn’t saying it. That’s all that matters to the Union.
“We use that as motivation,” said guard Chris Barker of Ault’s criticism. “We always just keep all that inside amongst ourselves. The bottom line is that if we’re not impressing him (Ault), then it’s not good enough.”
The Union definitely impressed Ault on Saturday in a 45-38 victory over Fresno State at Mackay Stadium. The Pack rolled up 581 total yards (268 on the ground and 313 through the air) and scored two crucial touchdowns in the fourth quarter. It wasn’t perfect — quarterback Cody Fajardo was sacked twice — but the performance clearly solidified the Union.
“It was our best overall game of the year,” Norcross said. “We were more physical, we wore them (Fresno State) down in the fourth quarter. That’s how we need to play every week.”
The Pack offensive front — guards Barker and Steve Haley, tackles Jeff Nady and Joel Bitonio and center Jordan Mudge — dominated the Bulldogs. Starting running back Mike Ball ran for a career-high 198 yards.
“I just think this week we were more motivated,” Barker said. “It was Fresno State. It was a huge game for us. Fresno is one of our big rivalries.”
The one area the offensive line struggled with earlier this season was down near the goal line.
“We were just missing blocks,” Ault said.
Those early games against tough opponents like Oregon, Texas Tech and Boise State were a transition period for the Pack offensive line. The Union, after all, had to undergo a few minor adjustments heading into this year.
The Pack lost a couple seniors off last year’s Union (guard John Bender and tackle Jose Acuna) and needed to fill some holes. Haley, a starter in 2009 and the beginning of 2010 before he got hurt, stepped right in for Bender. Bitonio replaced Acuna and has been steady. Mudge seems to have solidified the center spot in combination with Jeff Meads, last year’s starter.
The Pack also had to break in two new tight ends (Zach Sudfeld suffered a season-ending injury in Week One and has been replaced by Kolby Arendse) this year to replace last year’s starter Virgil Green.
“We had a few guys who had to grow into new roles,” Norcross said. “No question about it.”
“We started a little slow because a few of our guys just needed some more reps at new positions,” Barker said. “But every week we could see that we were gradually getting better.”
Norcross also admitted that the offensive backfield of the last three and four years with quarterback Colin Kaepernick and Vai Taua, also might have covered up a few flaws in recent years.
“In the past couple years when we’d make a mistake and miss a block, those guys would still usually make a big play so nobody really noticed when we missed a block,” Norcross said. “It just wasn’t as glaring. Kap and Vai would make up for it just because they were veteran guys and so talented. The guys this year are also making big plays to make us look good but there was a period of adjustment for everybody.”
Ault isn’t a big fan of that explanation.
“You either make the block or you don’t make the block,” he said.
Ault, though, never was all that worried about the Union.
“They are a very smart, intuitive group,” he said. “When you talk to them about something, they understand what you are telling them. And they never stop working to get better.
“Our expectations are always real high with that group. We just don’t accept it when it doesn’t work. There’s also a tremendous amount of pride within that group. The reward for them is to see a running back get 100 yards or for the quarterback to do well. They take pride in that.”
The Wolf Pack’s offensive line has had a lot of success against New Mexico State down through the years. The Pack, which owns a 12-2 series lead since the schools first met in 1992, has always put up big offensive numbers against the Aggies.
The Pack has scored 34 or more points in 13 of its 14 games against New Mexico State and has had 18 individual 100-yard rushing games by its running backs starting with Cornel West and Dedric Holmes in 1992. In 2009 the Pack had three players (Kaepernick, Luke Lippincott and Taua) with 100 or more yards rushing against New Mexico State.
The Pack has had at least one player with 100 yards or more on the ground in every game but one against the Aggies. And in that one game quarterback David Neill passed for 611 yards.
“Our focus is going to be on stopping the run,” New Mexico State head coach DeWayne Walker said this week.
The Union accepts the challenge.
“As an offense we can definitely put more points on the board,” Norcross said. “We’re definitely still not at our best. And it all starts with us up front. If we do our job that just makes it that much more comfortable for everyone else to do their job.”
“Everything we do in this pistol offense starts with those guys,” Ault said.