With Big 12 conference play fast approaching, the Missouri Tigers will round out their non-conference schedule with a trip to the Biggest Little City in the World to face the Nevada Wolfpack in a nationally televised showdown on ESPN Friday night.
Missouri (3-0; ranked No. 21 in the USA Today Coaches' poll) gets a bye week before opening Big 12 play against Nebraska at home on Oct. 8, but a win in Reno would mark the fourth consecutive season in which the Tigers have traversed their non-conference schedule with a perfect record, as well as extend the school record for non-Big 12 wins to 16 in a row, dating back to 2005.
While Missouri is hoping to keep its perfect mark intact, Nevada is simply scrounging for a win. The 0-2 Wolfpack have been outscored 20-70 in road losses to Notre Dame and Colorado State and suffer from one of the worst passing defenses in the nation.
The two sides have met just once before, in 2008, when MU thrashed Nevada, 69-17, while piling up 651 yards of total offense. Will this year's meeting be just as one-sided?
To find out more on the Nevada Wolfpack in this edition of Enemy Intel, I've enlisted the help of Lace Banachek, a colleague of mine at Bleacher Report who serves as a Featured Columnist and specializes in WAC football as the conference's top-ranked writer.
Also joining me is Juan Lopez, the sports editor at The Nevada Sagebrush, the university newspaper at Nevada.
RF: Despite winning three of its last five games last season, Nevada was largely inconsistent in posting a 7-6 record. Do you see some of the same problems contributing to 2009's sluggish 0-2 start?
JL: There have definitely been some of the same problems in the early going this year. For one, Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick is still very inconsistent in his passing. He can overthrow and under-throw wide-open receivers like no other.
Two, the Wolfpack secondary still looks to be as shabby as it was last year when it ranked last in the nation. The defensive backs are putting themselves in good position this year, but they are not making any plays.
Three, the special teams units aren't being all too special. Last year, the main problem was the kick return game. This year, it's Nevada's first-year kicker, Ricky Drake. He's a junior college transfer and has gone 0-for-2 in kicks this year (missed field goal and missed PAT).
RF: Is Nevada looking at this meeting with Missouri as somewhat of a revenge game, particularly given the one-sided affair that took place in Columbia last season?
JL: Although no one will admit it, this game is definitely a revenge game. I distinctly remember last year when Mizzou was up 45-17 in the third quarter. The Tigers lined up for a field goal, faked it and scored a touchdown off of a shovel pass to one of their tight ends. I thought that was very distasteful and the Wolfpack will definitely have that in mind this game. Players don't forget things like that.
LB: Who knows? However, what I know of Nevada's head coach Chris Ault, he is a class guy, and I doubt seriously he would allow his team to lose focus in that manner. If he needed to give an example of grudge or revenge circumstances and its unhealthy results, they need to look no further than the Oregon-Boise State game.
The Ducks fumed all spring and summer long over so-called late hits [from the 2008 game], but the Broncos ended up humiliating them and shutting them down totally. I doubt you will ever see a WAC team act that irresponsible.
RF: Though it's only been two games, the Wolfpack rank toward the bottom in a number of defensive categories, including 110th nationally in points allowed per game. What are Ault and his defensive staff doing to correct some of the early-season issues?
JL: To be frank, they're not doing much. The Nevada coaches and defensive staff are confident that if they execute their gameplan to the best of their ability, they'll be fine. That's one reason why people around the Reno area are calling for Coach Ault to be fired—he never digresses from planning for a game from week to week.
What I mean by that is he has the same gameplan whether the Wolfpack is playing Notre Dame or Idaho. That's one of the biggest problems with Nevada right now—no variety in their schemes.
LB: I watched those kids in the Notre Dame game and frankly was shocked at the lackluster play, offensively and defensively. This team must have been hurt worse through graduation than imagined. They still have good talent at Nevada, but it just seems the Wolfpack are too easy to read, which means teams have found a way to block them and score against them. However, it is early in the season, so maybe the coaches will have enough time to correct some of those flaws.
RF: What makes Chris Ault's Pistol offense so unique? And why do you think more teams prefer the traditional spread versus the Pistol formation?
JL: I believe the pistol offense is made more sensational with Kaepernick behind center. He is the perfect quarterback to run this offense because he has the ability to both run well and pass. But, with the two games I've seen so far, I'm starting to think teams have figured out how to defense the pistol offense.
Notre Dame shut out the Wolfpack while Colorado State held Nevada to just six points until late in the fourth quarter. It's really not that hard to defend in my opinion; individual players just have to stick to their responsibilities.
As for why more teams prefer the spread offense instead of the pistol, I think it has more to do with the running attacks they have. Nevada has a stable of good backs and if they were to completely go into the spread, it wouldn't give those backs a chance to shine. Also, the Wolfpack is not equipped to run four-or-five-receiver sets.
RF: Besides Kaepernick, who on the Nevada offense should Tiger fans concern themselves with?
JL: The main part of the Nevada offense has been running back Vai Taua. He's run for 209 yards this year and is averaging 6.5 yards per carry. If the Wolfpack feeds him the ball at least 25 times this game, I don't think it's a stretch to say he runs for more than 125 yards. On the receiver side, a wideout I think will be a star someday is Brandon Wimberly. He redshirted last year and in two games this year, he has nine catches for 140 yards and a touchdown. He's a big body with great ability to adjust to the ball in mid-air.
RF: How is running back Luke Lippincott looking nearly one year after suffering a severe knee injury to begin his 2008 season?
JL: Lippincott's return has been largely overhyped. Yes, he's a sixth-year senior and a team captain, but his production has been limited so far. He's been displaced by Taua, who has shined in his starting spot. Lippincott started at wide receiver against Notre Dame and has just 52 rushing yards so far this season.
LB: Lippincott is not even a shadow of his former self. He has carried the ball only nine times, been caught behind the line of scrimmage for an astounding 52 yards, and has averaged just 26 yards per game.
RF: To this point, this season's Missouri defense seems improved from 2008, but it's a young group. What do you anticipate the Wolfpack doing to take advantage of the Tigers' defensive inexperience?
Nevada will need RB Vai Taua to shine against Missouri (Getty)
JL: I'm looking forward to a healthy dose of Vai Taua and Lippincott on the ground. If Nevada has any hopes of winning this game against a superiorly talented Mizzou team, it needs to stick to what it does best—run the ball. If the Wolfpack runs the ball more than 50 times on Friday, it will help out not only its offense, but its defense.
As far as the Tigers' inexperience, I don't think that will be much of a factor. The theme to Nevada's season so far has been "Shooting ourselves in the foot." If the Wolfpack have any shot at this game, it will come down to what's happening on its own side of the ball, rather than Missouri's.
RF: Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert has been solid so far, but this will be just his fourth career start, not to mention his first-ever true road game. What will the Nevada defense do to ensure Gabbert never wants to play away from Columbia again?
JL: Despite this being Gabbert's first true road game, I'm sure he'll feel right at home on Friday. The Wolfpack defense has been known to make stars out of mediocre quarterbacks, and Gabbert is anything but a mediocre quarterback.
I'm actually predicting he throws for somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 yards and four scores. He should have his way with the Nevada defense—the secondary at least. One thing he might have to worry about is the Wolfpack pass rush. Nevada has two of the best defensive ends on the west coast in Kevin Basped and Dontay Moch. Together, they combined for 21.5 sacks last year. If they can collapse the pocket and put pressure on Gabbert, that might get his uniform a little dirty. But I still think he'll have a big day.
LB: None of the Wolfpack's five best tacklers has a single pass breakup this season, and that includes linebacker Mike Bethea, who has one of the team's two sacks. Friday night's game, and Nevada's performance on defense in particular, will tell us a lot about this Wolfpack team. Nevada must pressure Missouri's young quarterback, but I don't expect Gabbert to lose his confidence in Reno.
RF: Give us an idea of what the atmosphere will be like Friday night at MacKay Stadium for the home opener, in front of ESPN cameras and a national audience.
JL: The atmosphere will be electric for the first half. The student tickets started selling on Monday and sold out early Tuesday—a rarity for a Wolfpack football game. This game has all the makings of a "righting the ship" game: it's Nevada's first home game, it's on national TV and it's against a big-time opponent.
If the Wolfpack can hang with the Tigers through the first half, I think the atmosphere will carry through the end of the game. But if Mizzou jumps out front early, half of the student section will be gone before the second-half kickoff.
RF: Giving predictions is always fun, but I won't pester you for a score. However, can you give a hint as to how you think this one will play out?
JL: I think Missouri's offense will show it hasn't missed a beat since Jeremy Maclin and Chase Daniel left. I'm predicting at least 40 points for the Tigers' offense. As far as the Missouri defense goes, I think Nevada will score a few touchdowns on it, but not enough to win this game. It won't be similar to last year's 69-17 debacle, but Missouri should win by more than two touchdowns.
LB: I would imagine that Nevada wouldn't line up that well against Missouri. I truly hope I am wrong, and I will be watching in hopes that Nevada turns its game around. Teams like Boise State need a fellow WAC team to look and play well.
Having the WAC referred to as a cupcake conference is not exciting. Regardless, Nevada has a nice quarterback in Kaepernick, though he is no Kellen Moore at Boise State. Good teams will produce problems for the Wolfpack, including those within their own conference. By my estimation, Nevada is the third-best team in the WAC, and I expect them to get blown out, 36-17, by Missouri this week. But maybe a little humility from a good loss will serve them well the rest of the season.
Lace Banachek is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report who specializes in WAC football and is the conference's No. 1-ranked writer. He also writes for a number of college football sites, all of which you can find on his B/R profile.
Juan Lopez is the sports editor at The Nevada Sagebrush, the University of Nevada's official newspaper and No. 1 source for information on the Wolfpack football program.
Photo by Jean Dixon