Nevada is looking to snap several streaks when it takes on Southern Methodist in the Dec. 24 Hawaii Bowl. The Wolf Pack has lost its last three bowl games, and current SMU coach June Jones is 4-0 against the Wolf Pack in Honolulu, a stat that dates back to his days as Hawaii's head coach.
Since Nevada's regular season ended with a 44-33 loss at Boise State, much has been written in the local media about the Wolf Pack's inability to win big games. Though this game is not exactly huge, it would certainly help if coach Chris Ault and the Wolf Pack could earn a victory. Nevada is a heavy favorite against SMU.
The Wolf Pack is making its fifth consecutive bowl appearance. Nevada defeated Central Florida in the 2005 Hawaii Bowl, its last postseason victory.
Jones has guided SMU back to the postseason for the first time in 25 years, dating back to before the NCAA imposed the "death penalty" on the Mustangs' troubled football program in 1987.
Jones remains a popular figure in Hawaii, where he rebuilt the Hawaii football program and led the Warriors to the Sugar Bowl following the 2007 season.
Nevada will enter the bowl game without defensive coordinator Nigel Burton, who resigned to become the head coach at Portland State. Former defensive coordinator Ken Wilson, who was linebackers coach the last two seasons under Burton, will coordinate the defense in the game.
NOTES, QUOTES-Nevada is headed to the Hawaii Bowl for the second time in five years, having defeated Central Florida in the game in 2005.
Early in the season, a bowl game looked like an unattainable goal for the Wolf Pack, which started the season 0-3. Fans and some writers were even calling for coach Chris Ault's job.
But Ault got things turned around by turning to his running game. The rushing attack put up record-setting numbers during the Wolf Pack's eight-game winning streak that catapulted the team into bowl contention and the WAC championship race.
But a loss to Boise State in the regular-season finale raised some old questions about Ault and how far he can take the program. An article in the hometown Reno Gazette-Journal pointed out that Ault is 1-5 in bowl games since 1992 and is 5-13 against Boise State, Hawaii and Fresno State since returning to coaching in 2002. Ault is 1-8 against teams from Bowl Championship Series conferences.
The Nevada program is loaded with returning talent and should once again be the main challenger to Boise State in the WAC next year. A victory in the Hawaii Bowl against SMU -- and former Hawaii coach June Jones -- could set the foundation for a better start next season. Nevada has lost its last three bowl games, including last year's 42-35 loss to Maryland in the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise.
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE Nevada became the first team in Football Bowl Subdivision history with three 1,000-yard rushers in the same season. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running backs Vai Taua and Luke Lippincott all eclipsed the mark before the regular-season finale against Boise State. Nevada was held to 242 rushing yards by the Broncos, the Wolf Pack's lowest rushing total since the third game of the season, a loss to Missouri. The trio will be a twosome against SMU, as Lippincott will miss the game with a toe injury. The key to Nevada's success is the running game. In Nevada's four losses, the Wolf Pack averaged 195.5 yards per game on the ground. During its eight wins, Nevada averaged 445.6 rushing yards per game. Nevada still leads the nation in rushing.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE Nevada allowed five passing touchdowns to Boise State in the regular-season finale. Three went to the Broncos' fullback. The Wolf Pack has yielded 31 passing touchdowns this season, including nine in the past three games. The Wolf Pack ranks 114th in pass efficiency defense and 119th in pass defense, allowing 284 yards per game through the air. Nevada did not have any sacks against Boise State and rarely pressured the Broncos' quarterback. S Jonathon Amaya led the Wolf Pack with 12 tackles against Boise State and with 83 on the season.
MATCHUP TO WATCH Can Nevada slow down the SMU passing attack? While not as prolific as the passing attacks that June Jones coached at Hawaii, SMU has firepower in the passing game. Stopping the pass has been one of Nevada's downfalls this season.
OTHER KEY MATCHUPS Nevada rush offense vs. SMU run defense -- The Mustangs rank 88th nationally in run defense, allowing 169.2 yards per game on the ground. Nevada leads the nation in rushing offense by more than 50 yards per game, averaging 362.2 yards on the ground. Nevada is averaging an incredible 7.6 yards per carry and has scored 48 rushing touchdowns this season. SMU has struggled against the run, allowing more than 200 yards five times, including 331 yards to Navy. Nevada will be without RB Luke Lippincott (toe) for the bowl game, but the Wolf Pack has two other 1,000-yard rushers, RB Vai Taua and QB Colin Kaepernick.
Nevada pass defense vs. SMU's passing offense -- The Mustangs' passing proficiency won't remind anyone of June Jones' Hawaii days, as his current team shows a lot more balance (1,353 rushing yards) and fewer passing yards (3,206). SMU has 431 passing attempts and 354 rushing tries. But Nevada has struggled all season to defend opponents' passing games. The Wolf Pack ranks 119th in pass defense, allowing 284.2 yards per game through the air. Look for SMU quarterback Kyle Padron, who started the final five games of the season, to have a big night.
Nevada DE Dontay Moch vs. SMU offensive line -- Moch was chosen the WAC Defensive Player of the Year after recording 19.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. Keeping Moch out of the backfield is a top priority for SMU in the bowl game. The Mustangs have allowed 34 sacks.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"It has nothing to do with preparation. When you score 33 points, you usually win the game. ... We've learned this year and we're still learning, you've got to play four quarters against a team like that. Playing Boise is a very difficult task. We had our chance. I'm disappointed in the way we lost." -- Nevada coach Chris Ault, to the Reno Gazette-Journal, dismissing a suggestion that his poor record in big games is because other teams, Boise State in particular, produce more wrinkles in their game plan each week.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
BOWL BREAKDOWN Nevada vs. SMU, Hawaii Bowl, Dec. 24, Honolulu -- Most fans will be rooting for SMU, coached by former Hawaii coach June Jones, rather than Hawaii's conference mate, Nevada. This game might produce more than 100 points, as SMU ranks 28th in the nation in passing offense and Nevada tops the country in rushing offense. Neither defense is particularly adept at stopping the other team's strength.
PLAYERS TO WATCH QB Colin Kaepernick -- He threw for three touchdowns in the final game of the regular season and has now accounted for 35 touchdowns (16 rushing, 19 passing) this year. Kaepernick rushed for 1,160 yards and passed for 1,875 in the regular season.
RB Vai Taua -- The junior is ninth in the NCAA in rushing yards per game at 122.3. He has 10 rushing touchdowns, including five in the past four games. He may have an even larger role with Luke Lippincott out for the bowl game. Taua carried a season-high 24 times against Boise State, a game in which Lippincott was limited to one carry.
S Jonathon Amaya -- The senior led Nevada with 12 tackles against Boise State and completed the regular season with a team-high 83 tackles. Amaya led Nevada with eight pass breakups as well.
WR Brandon Wimberly -- He is expected to win WAC Freshman of the Year honors after hauling in 46 passes for 653 yards and five touchdowns.
--Defensive coordinator Nigel Burton accepted the Portland State head-coaching position on Dec. 8. Burton, 33, had been the Wolf Pack's defensive coordinator for two seasons. He plans to run the pistol offense at Portland State.
Ken Wilson, who had been Nevada's defensive coordinator in 2007 before Burton's arrival, will serve as defensive coordinator for the Hawaii Bowl. It was Wilson's defense that held June Jones-coached Hawaii to 28 points in 2007, a regular-season low for the undefeated Warriors. Nevada coach Chris Ault will not fill the vacancy until after the bowl game.
--RB Luke Lippincott (toe) will miss the bowl game.
--WR Shane Anderson (ankle) is probable for the game with SMU.
--WR L.J. Washington (knee) will miss the bowl game.