Nevada Football Defensive Preview

Will Chase Garbers throw for a million yards Saturday, or will he decide to run for a million yards instead? We'll find out.

Yesterday I wrote about how the Nevada offense would be a good test for the Cal defense—tough, but not too tough. Similarly, I think the Nevada defense will be a good barometer to measure where we are with the new Cal offense— the difference being, of course, that we know Cal has a good defense, whereas Cal has had an offense in recent years that I will only politely refer to as “frustrating at times.” Gone are the days of “We’re down by 28 with 5 minutes left, but that just means that Jared Goff only needs to score a touchdown every minute and fifteen seconds, instead of his usual one minute average. We’re still in it!” In recent seasons, that delirious hope has morphed into “I hope the offense doesn’t take up too much time, I think Cal has a real shot at another pick-6.”

If Cal struggles against the Nevada defense on Saturday, I think it’s going to be a long season. If Cal’s offense has a good showing, I can parlay that unreasonable preseason optimism that this is finally the year Cal has both a great offense and a great defense for at least another week, when we face TCU’s defense.

Let’s break down the Nevada defense.

Defensive Line

This is undoubtedly the strength of the Nevada defense. The linebackers were average and the secondary was a liability, but the defensive line was impressive. Nevada runs a 4-2-5 defense (same as TCU next week, so at least that’s helpful), and looks to make QBs uncomfortable in the pocket. By far my favorite player to watch on this defensive line was defensive tackle (although Nevada does play around with where they line up) Dom Peterson. Dom Peterson is just a big, powerful force that can eat double teams and still pressure the QB.

Peterson (#99) is just a straight-up people-mover:

He’s quick off the snap:

He even displays some nice quickness for someone his size:

Of course, Nevada’s later opponents thought, “Hey, maybe we should try double-teaming this guy.” Well, no matter:

DT Dom Peterson (wearing the white long sleeves) eats a double team and still manages to apply some pressure, allowing DE Kameron Toomer to eventually get to the QB to win the game.

Dom Peterson was definitely the biggest impact player on the defense, even when he didn’t log any stats on the play. Helping to collapse the pocket and requiring extra attention from opposing offensive lines doesn’t always show up on the stat sheet, but opposing QBs definitely feel it.

The other stat leader on the defensive line is super senior (grad student) defensive end Sam Hammond. I honestly wasn’t super impressed with Hammond (especially relative to the amount announcers hyped him up after a big year in 2019), but apparently he was battling through a knee injury last season.

Hammond is a big light for a defensive end, but he’ll try and use his speed to get to the QB off the edge:

I was actually a bit more impressed with his backup, DE Daniel Grzesiak, who started to make a real impact late in the season.

Here he is on the right side of the defensive line:

Grzesiak had limited playing time, but he did seem to show up in the big moments when it counted (like in the earlier clip with Dom Peterson, getting the game-winning sack against SDSU).

One of the benefits of of your teammate eating double teams is that you are more likely to get one-on-one matchups yourself. Here the other defensive end Kameron Toomer gets that benefit and is able to force an incompletion:

With questions surrounding Cal’s offensive line, this is probably the only positional group I would say has an advantage over Cal. Luckily, Chase Garbers is a very athletic and mobile quarterback, which I hope will help neuter that edge.

Secondary

On the other end of the spectrum is Nevada’s secondary. The biggest talent disparity between the two teams will be Cal’s wide receivers and Nevada’s defensive backs. To put it nicely, they struggled last year, and new transfers are already expected to start— for example, Isaiah Essissima (a backup at Wake Forest) is expected to start at corner, and Bentlee Sanders (from USF) should start at nickel. Nevada fields an undersized group at defensive back, as their best cover corner (Berdale Robins) and safety (Tyson Williams) are both 5’9”. I don’t want to put any players completely on blast here, but I did see opposing QBs pick on the same corners again and again, so it probably shouldn’t be too shocking that other school’s backups are expected to make an impact for Nevada here.

Let’s start with some positives.

As mentioned previously, Berdale Robins is probably their best cover corner. He doesn’t really show up in that many highlights, which is usually a good thing (or a bad thing, because the other corners were too busy being picked on).

Someone that did show up in a couple highlights for me was the strong safety, Tyson Williams. Here he shows good instincts on tight coverage to get the pick:

Williams is also not afraid to put his body on the line to lay a big hit on an opposing player, something he loves to do:

It’s really anyone’s guess who will play free safety opposite Williams, but Emany Johnson did have a couple nice plays from the safety position:

If you’re counting, I ultimately ended up with 35 Nevada offensive highlights from last season and just 12 defensive highlights… and I was trying to find highlights to help fill this article out. Take that as you will.

Conclusion

One last thing I wanted to mention but couldn’t really fit into any particular section is that I consistently noticed Nevada’s defense struggle with dual-threat quarterbacks. In the beginning of last season, it looked like they didn’t even account for the possibility that an opposing QB might run, and it was often an effective play against Nevada.

It was a bit baffling to me watching Nevada consistently struggle to defend against the RPO, considering how fundamental it was to their offense not that long ago. Nevada benefitted from subpar passing from early opponents to overcome this, but I believe Chase Garbers has the ability to beat Nevada both through the air and on the ground.

Even though Nevada’s defense might not be the best, they have a very experienced group (thanks to the extra year of eligibility) and are returning pretty much every contributor on the defensive side of the ball. Despite the experience, they have struggled at times to generate turnovers, and they ranked last in the Mountain West last year in penalty yards, thus struggling to gain or maintain momentum. Hopefully we get the chance to see just what the Cal offense is capable of this Saturday.

Go Bears!