Chris Ault is going to have to do a lot of soul searching this off-season.
The Nevada Wolf Pack head coach’s mission, if he chooses to accept it, is to finally figure out why his football team can’t play defense. And he might not like the answers. But they are answers he must discover before his program self destructs.
“We’ve got to play better defense if we’re going to win football games,” Ault said after last Friday’s 48-31 knockdown loss to the Air Force Falcons. “No question about it.”
It’s not about simply winning football games. Ault, after all, has won nearly seven of every 10 games he’s coached in his 28-year career. But now that he’s pushing 70 years old, has won over 200 games and is already in the Hall of Fame, his goals are a little loftier than merely winning eight games a year and going to a meaningless bowl game.
Been there, done that. For two decades. Ault is coaching because he wants more. He wants a program that is a consistent Top 25 team year after year.
Like Boise State.
“We still have a long way to go,” Ault said earlier this season.
After Friday, that journey seems to be growing longer.
“We got a good group of guys on this team, guys that care, guys that are going to try,” senior linebacker Albert Rosette said.
“We played from the first whistle to the last,” senior safety Duke Williams said. “Our guys, they stuck in there and battled.”
Having a bunch of good guys who play hard just isn’t enough if you want a consistent Top 25 program year after year.
“We got beat in all phases of the game, up front, linebackers, secondary,” Rosette said.
The loss at Air Force was one of the worst, most thorough beatings an Ault-coached team has ever received on defense. The disturbing thing about the Air Force game was not merely the 48 points and 600 yards allowed. It’s how Air Force piled up those points and yards that sends up about three dozen — one for every Air Force first down — red flags.
The Falcons controlled the ball for 89 plays and for 34:37. That’s just the second time the Pack has allowed an opponent to run off that many plays and control the ball that long in a game since Ault took over the program for the third time in 2004. The other time was against Nebraska in 2007 when the Cornhuskers had 96 plays and held the ball for 40:38.
Air Force never punted, the first time a Pack opponent could have had their punter sell popcorn in the stands the whole game since Ault came back in 2004. And the Falcons collected 36 first downs, the most the Pack has allowed since Ault came back in 2004 (Nebraska had 35).
But the most stunning number to come out of the Air Force ambush was that the Falcons ran for 461 yards. It is the most rushing yards the Pack has allowed in a game since Boise State ran for 516 in 1972, back when Ault was the head coach at Reno High.
“They just kept the ball all day and dominated the game with their offense,” Ault said.
Make no mistake, the Falcons run the ball on everyone. They did run for a season-high 484 yards against Idaho State this year. Yes, folks, the Pack defense is now in the same conversation as Idaho State.
“We didn’t do anything on defense,” Ault said. “We didn’t make any plays.”
The Wolf Pack defense never really did stop the Air Force offense. We already mentioned the lack of an Air Force punt. The Falcons had the ball for a dozen drives. They scored six touchdowns, kicked two field goals, fumbled the ball away twice and the clock ended the other two drives. If what took place last Friday in Colorado was a baseball game, the Falcons would still be hitting.
“We lost on first down,” Williams said. “On every possession I can remember we lost on first down. They kind of rallied together as a team and fed off that.”
Yes, it’s easy to score if your leadoff hitter keeps hitting a double, triple or home run.
Air Force averaged a staggering 8.5 yards on each of its 44 first-down plays. They picked up an equally stunning 14 first downs on first down plays and scored four touchdowns.
They were 4-of-4 through the air for 101 yards and two touchdowns on first down and they ran for 261 yards and two touchdowns on 40 first-down rushes.
“We struggled to come up with stops,” said Williams, who because he is a senior leader has the unenviable responsibility of trying to explain the Pack defense’s performance to the media after most games.
But there really is no explanation for what happened last Friday to the Pack defense. The Pack knew what Air Force was going to do. Air Force didn’t beat the Pack with a crazy scheme and plays drawn up in the dirt. And the Falcons didn’t beat the Pack with better athletes who were bigger, stronger and faster than the Pack defense.
“We watched a ton of film,” said Rosette, who had a team-record 25 tackles against Air Force. “We were ready, we were prepared.”
The run-happy Falcons don’t care if you know what they are going to do. It doesn’t take a Hall of Fame coach to figure out what the Falcons are going to do on offense. The Falcons just went out and punched the Pack defense in the mouth — 89 times to be exact — and dared the Pack to fight back.
And the Pack defense never fought back. That, more than anything else, is the biggest eye-opener of all to come out of last Friday night.
“They just beat us,” Rosette said. “They came out ready to play and we came out flat. They just played harder than us, they out-efforted us.”
A Chris Ault-coached college team should never be out-efforted, especially with a Mountain West title on the line.
“There is no excuse for us to play the way we did defensively,” Ault said.
It’s not the first time he’s said that this year.
The Wolf Pack defense is now 92nd in the nation against the run (190 yards allowed a game), 74th against the pass (242 yards a game), 88th overall (432 yards a game) and 93rd in points allowed (31.2). And those numbers are kinder than they should be.
Just nine teams have given up more first downs than the Pack (25.1 a game) this year, just 13 have fewer interceptions than the Pack‘s four and just five have fewer tackles for a loss than the Pack’s 4.22 a game.
So, yes, this is getting serious, Pack fans. That defense is keeping the Pack stuck in the muck and mire of college football’s forgotten mediocrity.
This defense has allowed an average of 41 points and 462 total yards over its last three games. This defense has allowed 21 or more points in every game this season. The only time the Pack muddled through an entire year in its 106-year football history allowing at least 21 points in every game was 2000, the first year in the Western Athletic Conference. That Pack team under coach Chris Tormey finished 2-10.
This Pack defense has also allowed at least one rushing touchdown and at least one passing touchdown in every single game. That has never happened before through an entire season in the Pack’s history.
Yes, this Pack defense will make history unless things drastically improve over the final three games. And unless this Pack defense does something it hasn’t done since 2006 — hold three consecutive opponents under 10 points each — it is time Ault drastically changes the direction of this defense in the off-season.
That’s because the defense is what is holding this program back from reaching the next level.
Ault knows in his heart that the Pack can become the next Boise State and win 10-plus games, capture league titles and flirt with BCS bowl selection committees every single season.
They already have the offense. But if the Pack wants to become the next Boise State its needs to develop the next Boise State defense.
The Broncos became a national power on a consistent basis starting about a dozen years ago because of defense. The Broncos have had a handful of defensive coordinators since they turned their program around a dozen years ago or so. The names have changed, from Bob Gregory to Ron Collins to Justin Wilcox to Pete Kwiatkowski, but the results have stayed the same. Unfortunately, that — changing names and stagnant results — has also been true with the Pack defense.
The Broncos remain one of the best defensive teams in the nation despite losing a ton of talent to graduation and the NFL over the last half-dozen years or so. They are 15th in total defense this year, allowing just 311 yards a game, and fifth in scoring defense, allowing just 13.6 points a game.
What needs to be changed so that the Pack gets a Boise defense? Well, that’s up to Ault and that’s what he must determine this off-season. He needs to seriously look at every aspect of this defense, from the coaching and player personnel all the way to the philosophy.
And that philosophy needs to be about more than simply energy and passion, as Ault prescribed this summer. If it was that easy, you’d just pull 11 guys out of the stands, light their shoes on fire and turn them loose. It’s about putting the right players in the right spots at the right time and holding them accountable for their actions. And right now that just isn’t happening with the Pack defense.
Can the Pack recover and beat Fresno State, Boise State and New Mexico and have a chance at a Mountain West title? Anything is possible in the ever-forgiving world of college football. Hey, this team hasn’t even played all that well since destroying Hawaii about six weeks ago and they are still 6-3 and in the Mountain West race.
But this is not about the rest of this season.
This is about the direction of the program and if it will ever leap out of the malaise of eight-win seasons and meaningless bowl games for more than just one dream season a century.
And defense, we should know by now, is the only way out.
What changes are needed?
Well, it’s obvious the defense needs an influx of talent. This is now a defense that knows what’s coming and still can’t stop it. But beyond talent, this defense also needs an injection of energy and ideas.
It might also be time for a shift in recruiting philosophy, at least for the next couple years. While it is always important, after all, to deliver some late Christmas presents to Ault and his offense every February, it might also be time to load up on defense. Just throw a bunch of young linebackers and defensive backs — the Pack already has a ton of good, young defensive linemen – on the wall and see what sticks.
Does the defensive coaching staff need to be restructured? That’s for Ault to decide this off-season. Ault and his staff know best whether this is a player or coaching issue. All we know is that nothing seems to be working right now.
“It starts with the head coach and goes right down to the position coaches,” Ault said.
Last off-season Ault took a coaching position away from his defense and put it on offense. That move, it’s obvious now, just isn’t working. He took a coach away from the one area of his team (defense) that needs as much coaching as it can get and gave it to the one area of his team (offense) that doesn’t need any more help.
The result of that switch is that the Pack now has two coaches on offense — Ault and offensive coordinator/ quarterbacks coach Nick Rolovich — doing the same job and four men on defense (Mike Bradeson, Ken Wilson, Barry Sacks, James Ward) doing the job that five performed last year.
It might be time to re-think that decision.
The bottom line is that Ault has some serious thinking to do this off-season. His coaching clock is ticking — he continues to say he won’t stay on the sidelines past the age of 70 (2016). So time is running out on that plan to become the next Boise State.
The biggest criticism of Ault during his career is that he only notices the defense when it gives up 35 or 40 points in a loss. And while there probably is some merit to that criticism — he’s like any other head coach who specializes on one side of the ball — it’s not totally fair. The Pack has had more than its share of solid defenses in Ault’s 28 seasons.
So this isn’t a mission impossible. Ault is a Hall of Fame coach. He can figure this thing out.
But the clock is ticking.