As dynamic duos go, the Nevada Wolf Pack defense has usually been Robin to the Pack offense’s Batman.
For the most part in recent Wolf Pack history, the defense has played the role of the put upon, vastly overlooked, disregarded, ignored, slightly inept sidekick to the Pack offense’s leading man.
Fred Flintstone had his Barney Rubble, Ralph Kramden had his Ed Norton, Rocky the Flying Squirrel had his Bullwinkle and the Pack offense has the Pack defense.
“That’s always going to be the case when the head coach (Chris Ault) is an offensive guy, a guy who is always on the cutting edge in his profession,“ said Wolf Pack associate head coach Ken Wilson, who tutors the defensive ends. “All of the attention is going to go that way.”
And all of the blame tends to go the other way.
Or so it seems.
“We weren’t a good defense last year,” Ault said. “We made some good strides. But we still have a long ways to go.”
There were definitely some good strides. The defense allowed an average of 21 points and 364 yards a game in 2010, down from 28.5 points and 409 yards a game the year before and 32.3 points and 400 yards in 2008. Last season was the Pack defense’s best year since the 2006 team allowed 19.2 points and 326 yards a game.
But, Ault is right, the job isn’t finished.
“We left a lot of plays out on the field last year,” senior linebacker James-Michael Johnson said. “We need to go out there and make a bigger difference.”
Ault, who has thrilled the nation with his pistol formation on offense in recent years, has grown weary of watching his offense do all of the heavy lifting. That’s why he has issued a challenge to his defense that has become a staple of his annual State of the Wolf Pack address each year.
“Our defense has to carry us and give our offense a chance to grow early in the season,” the Pack head coach said this summer.
Those words are nothing new.
“Every year you go in thinking that the defense has to step up,“ said assistant coach Barry Sacks, whose specialty is the defensive line. “This is just a continuation of that.”
The difference this year is that the Pack defense has already accomplished what Ault is demanding. The Wolf Pack defense went into this past off-season after holding Boston College to just 185 total yards, 13 points and one touchdown in a 20-13 victory in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl at San Francisco’s AT&T Park on Jan. 9.
It was the day that Bullwinkle, Robin and Barney Rubble clearly, finally stole the spotlight while Rocky, Batman and Fred stumbled.
“That game showed us what hard work can do,” Johnson said. “We know what can come if you keep working hard. We learned that last year.”
“That game gave those guys the confidence that they could go out and win a game for this football team,” Wilson said. “It gave this defense a respect throughout the entire football team. It just proved that the offense doesn’t have to go out every game and score 50 points for us to be successful.”
Move over Batman, here comes Robin.
“Last year our defense got better most every week,” Ault said. “I expect our defense to be very good this year.”
They will have to do it without some very familiar names. Gone are four senior starters off the 2010 defense that helped the Pack finish 13-1 and 11th in the final Associated Press rankings: defensive ends Dontay Moch and Ryan Coulson, linebacker Kevin Grimes and cornerback Doyle Miller. Moch, Coulson and Miller were all in NFL training camps this summer.
“We don’t have a Dontay,” said Ault of the speedy Moch, who had 22 tackles for a loss and 8.5 sacks last year.
“You can’t replace a Dontay,” Johnson said. “Just having his presence on the field was great. Other teams would be worrying about (number) 55 all game long. You could see it on their faces.”
Losing Coulson, Grimes and Miller also won’t be easy. Coulson had 8.5 tackles for a loss and 3.5 sacks. Grimes had 84 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss and three sacks and Miller knocked away nine passes.
The new starters on defense on Saturday when the Pack takes on Oregon on the road will be ends Kaelin Burnett and Albert Rosette, linebacker Jeremiah Green, free safety Charles Garrett (the red shirt freshman beat out returning starter Marlon Johnson) and cornerback Khalid Wooten.
“There’s no reason why me and Kaelin can’t be the one-two sack combination in the league and in the nation,” tackle Brett Roy said. “We’re just hungry.”
And confident. That’s what the Boston College game accomplished for this defense.
“We want teams to struggle to not only get points against us but to just get first downs,” said Roy, who had 14.5 tackles for a loss and eight sacks last year.
Ault is confident this defense has enough playmakers and leaders to overcome the loss of Moch, Coulson, Grimes and Miller.
Two of those leaders Ault is counting on are linebackers Johnson and Brandon Marshall.
“I expect them not only to be leaders but to also be dominators,” said Ault of his senior backers, who are now in their fourth year as starters. “They have to be productive players for us.”
The defense will also be led by tackles Roy, Willie Faataualofa and Zack Madonick (when he returns from a broken foot injury), and a secondary that includes strong safety Duke Williams and cornerback Isaiah Frey.
They all welcome Ault’s challenge.
“We just have to hold ourselves to a higher standard,” Frey said.
“We want to be a Top 20 (in the nation) run defense team.,” Roy said. “We want to be a top 20 pass defense. There’s no other option for us. We have to be better. And we will be better. We work too hard.”
Roy wants his teammates on defense to go into every game believing that they have to go out and win the game.
“It’s not a bad thing to have pressure on you to perform,” he said. “That pressure makes you work harder.”
“It’s been a lot of years since the defense has been the focal point of this football team,” said Williams, a Hug High graduate. “Now it’s time for us to step up.”
The defense will get tested early and often this year. In the first month of the season alone they will face high-powered, versatile offenses from Oregon, Texas Tech and Boise State.
“The defense needs to be the stalwarts of this football team,” Sacks said. “They need to carry the load and not rely on the offense to always score points.”
“That’s the attitude we want to have on defense, that this defense can carry this team to victories,” Johnson said.
The Pack defense is determined to make the Boston College performance a weekly occurrence in 2011.
“This is our coming out party this year,” Roy said.