Missouri's first true road game of the 2009 season will take place on September 26 in Reno, Nevada when the Tigers square off against the Nevada Wolfpack. This season the Wolfpack return a lot of key starters from last year's 7-6 team and many expect them to be a contender for the WAC Championship this year. Expect a much tougher game this season then the one in 2008 where Mizzou won easily, 69-17.
Junior quarterback Colin Kaepernick was one of the most explosive players in college football last season on his feet and with his arm. He will be a key part of a Wolfpack offense that seems like it will be able to score at will in 2009. Although he completed only 54% of his passes, he threw for 2849 yards and 22 TD's while rushing for 1130 yards and 17 touchdowns as a sophomore in 2008. Kapernick's wiry frame isn't very imposing, but he has loads of talent and improved in each and every game last season. There isn't any reason to believe that he won't continue to improve in his junior season. He will provide a serious test for a young Missouri defense because of his speed so it will be interesting to see how they handle it.
The rushing game would be good enough with just Kapernick's production, but the Wolfpack have an even better threat at running back. Junior Vai Taua returns to Nevada after surprisingly rushing for 1,521 yards and 15 TD's last year after the expected starter in 2008, Luke Lippincott, went down with an ACL injury. Lippincott, who has almost 2,000 career yards for Nevada, returns in 2009 for a sixth year of eligibility to solidify the backfield behind Taua. Nevada had one of the top rushing attacks in all of college football last season and they return all of their starters in the backfield, so what will stop them from having the same or even better production as they did in 2008.
The top receiving threat in 2008 for the Wolfpack was Marko Mitchell but he was selected in the seventh round of the NFL Draft so Nevada must find a replacement for the 1,141 yards and 10 touchdowns that he collected last season. Because Mitchell is now gone, the Nevada receiving corps are much less experienced and much less talented. The new number one target looks like it is going to be junior Chris Wellington who had 632 receiving yards last season. His 4.4 speed is promising, but he must prove that he can be a legitimate number one threat for Kaepernick in 2009. Other targets that could breakthrough this season include 6-5 tight end Virgil Green and transfer Joe Washington. The Tigers weak and inexperienced secondary catches a break with this quite average receiving corps.
An offensive line that lead the third ranked offense in the nation last season returns three of its starters including both offensive tackles. The biggest loss on the line will be all-WAC center Dominic Green who will be replaced by senior lineman Kenneth Ackerman. The 6-4 offensive lineman has never played center before, but he has performed well anywhere he has played. Other than that, just know that this offensive line has been in front of one of the top offensive units for the past couple of years and I don't think it will be any different in 2009.
As good as the offense was last season, the defense was that bad, which led to the Wolfpack's lackluster 7-6 record. The problem, however, was not stopping the run. The Wolfpack allowed the sixth least amount of rushing yards in the FBS last year and they return 3 of their 4 starting defensive lineman from a year ago. Kevin Basped and Dontay Mach should be one of the top pass rushing defensive end tandems in the upcoming season, which could spell trouble for the Tigers. Nate Agalava and Chris Slack will plug up the middle and be the anchors of a great run defense, but they wont be much help in stopping the opponents passing game.
Linebacker is a bit of a question mark for this Nevada team. Mike Bathea has good size and athleticism and will move to middle linebacker after starting on the outside last year. James Michael-Johnson has tons of talent and has shown it by producing great pass rushing numbers (12.5 tackles for loss). The redshirt sophomore can also help out in the run game, as he is a tough tackler. This unit as a whole needs to work on getting to the quarterback quicker to make the secondary's job easier. The good thing is that they are young and can learn quickly throughout the season which means that the defense should improve at least slightly.
The main concern for the Wolfpack and the thing keeping them from being a legitimate BCS contender out of the WAC is their secondary. Last season, Nevada finished last in all of college football in pass defense, allowing over 311 yards per game. Jonathon Amaya will be the best player in the secondary because of his tackling ability, but past him there isn't much talent. Antoine Thompson will start at corner, but he hasn't become the lockdown corner many thought he would be after transferring from junior college. Isaiah Frey could be the starter at the other end of the field, but he has not had any level of success in college and he hasn't even shown any flashes of greatness. Overall, this is no doubt the weakest part of the Nevada team.
This Nevada game will probably end up being one of the toughest games on Missouri's schedule. The game will be played up as a huge contest in Reno as it is on a Friday night and is being aired on ESPN. If Missouri can come out of this one victorious, it would be a major victory and a sign that the Tigers could be competitors for the Big XII North title again.