COURTESY OF UNIVERSITY OF NEVADA
Nevada has won three games in a row with freshman Colin Kaepernick starting at quarterback.
Pack mentality absent in Reno
RENO, Nev. » Imagine a sports fan born and raised in Honolulu having a drink at Eastside Grill ... and he doesn't know the name of the Hawaii quarterback.
Hawaii (9-0, 6-0 WAC) at Nevada (5-4, 3-2)
When: Tomorrow, 6 p.m.
Where: Reno, Nev.
Radio: KKEA, 1420-AM
Jake Rasmussen, 29, is that person in Reno. Not the quarterback. The guy who doesn't know the Nevada quarterback's name.
As Bob Dylan wails "Tangled Up in Blue" from the jukebox, Rasmussen thinks and then shakes his head.
"I couldn't tell you."
While there are a few passionate Nevada fans around, last night they weren't at the Little Waldorf Saloon, a quirky and flavorful watering hole and BBQ joint and bastion of Wolf Pack insanity on game days, according to bartender Brad Ostrem.
"The Boise State and New Mexico games were great. It was packed and everyone was hooting and hollering," Ostrem said. "For home games it's packed before and after and a desert during the game. That's a great work day because you make money before and after, but you can watch the game."
Nevada (5-4, 3-2 WAC) hosts 13th-ranked Hawaii (9-0, 6-0) tomorrow at Mackay Stadium, right across from "The Wal," which opened for business in 1922 when Red Waldorf, nephew of the owner of the Waldorf-Astoria, moved west.
Last night the place had everything a college sports bar needs -- good food, kitschy decor, a pool table, 276 bottles of beer on the wall. Just one important item was missing: passionate home team fans. There was not an "N" to be found on a cap or shirt.
That will change tomorrow, but even coach Chris Ault admits Nevada is still "trying to motivate the fans" to come to the games.
Attendance hasn't slipped, but it hasn't gotten better despite an exciting team with two of the most thrilling offensive players in the WAC in quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running back Luke Lippincott. And Nevada is 3-0 at home this year.
Attendance averages around 20,000 at 30,000-seat Mackay Stadium, and 22,000 tickets had been sold for tomorrow's game against UH. Season ticket sales totaled 10,200 this year.
Chad Hartley covered Wolf Pack sports for the Reno Gazette-Journal for several years before joining the Nevada sports media services department last year. He said it probably won't be one watershed event (like the Pack beating Boise State or a ranked Hawaii team) that would spark more intense interest in the team.
"I think they're looking for that one season where they have a couple of significant wins, win a conference championship and make a run at national recognition," Hartley said.
It sounds like what Boise State did last year, and what Hawaii is trying to do this year. It's also what Nevada basketball has accomplished this decade.
Hartley said he thinks Wolf Pack basketball's success has not overshadowed football, but helped bring more attention to it and other Nevada sports.
But passion for college sports, even the home team, has its limits here. Rasmussen's friend, Mike Walters, said there are other interests in Reno.
"This town's all about gambling and drinking and running amok," he said.
Well, Kaepernick's penchant for the last (on the football field) has gotten the attention of WAC defensive coordinators, if not the local populace. UH's Greg McMackin knows who he is.
"I would expect them to use him more in the offense. He was new the last four weeks, or after the Fresno game, but he's a real talent in running the ball," McMackin said. "He runs 4.5, has a rocket arm, and he's a real talent, too. So they really have two backs in the backfield."
The other is Lippincott, who leads the WAC with 117.1 rushing yards per game. Kaepernick has 1,677 yards in total offense, passed for 13 touchdowns and rushed for five others in less than five full games.
Kaepernick, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound redshirt freshman, took over during the Fresno State game on Oct. 6 when starter Nick Graziano was lost for the season due to injury. After Nevada lost to FSU, Kaepernick caught the nation's eye with a breakout performance in a four-overtime 69-67 loss at Boise State. On national television, he rushed for 177 yards and two TDs and passed for 243 and three.
Since then, he's led the Pack to three consecutive wins. Kaepernick is 10th nationally in passing efficiency and has thrown just one interception as a starter.
"I'm very impressed. The young kid has played phenomenal," Hawaii coach June Jones said.
Kaepernick, a 3.7 grade-point-average student at Nevada, is smart enough to not get caught up in the hype.
"Things have gone pretty well, but it's not just me. When we get out there and play well its because our O-line is out there dominating," he said.
The former high school baseball standout (a pitcher who could reach the 90s with his fastball) knows Nevada has a big opportunity to knock off a ranked team tomorrow.
"There is a lot at stake, but we have to maintain our focus," said Kaepernick, acknowledging that Nevada becomes bowl eligible with a win. "We have to stay focused on fundamentals and concentrate on going out there and play our game."
Ault wants Kaepernick to improve on some fundamentals, including throwing more over the top and working on his footwork dropping back to pass.
"He really has responded to the challenge and we haven't had to back up the offense for him because he has a great grasp of it."
The Pack beat out Michigan, Tennessee and Notre Dame to get Kaepernick. That's because those schools were offering baseball scholarships, and Nevada was the only football scholarship offer.
Does baseball coach Gary Powers have a chance of getting a new closer this spring?
"Absolutely not. I don't recruit quarterbacks to play baseball," Ault said.
That's fine with Kaepernick. Football's his first love.
"We thought this was going to be a transition year," said Ostrem, the bartender. "But the freshman quarterback is doing a great job. And we have him for three more years."
Maybe. And maybe by then they'll all know his name in Reno.
CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
C.J. Hawthorne talked things over with Colt Brennan during practice. Brennan took only five snaps in his return to the field following Saturday's concussion.
Warrior fans can either breathe a sigh of relief or furrow their brows in concern. Quarterback Colt Brennan has been cleared to play this week, just a few days removed from taking a brutal hit against Fresno State that left him unconscious with a concussion.
Coach June Jones said yesterday before Hawaii's flight to Reno, Nev., that Brennan is indeed available for the No. 13 Warriors' contest against Nevada tomorrow.
"If the game were (yesterday), I would say Colt would play," Jones said.
When asked about medical clearance for Brennan, which the quarterback needs from UH's medical staff before he can participate, Jones confirmed that he had been checked out.
"Yup. They've done everything (all tests)," Jones said. "(They found) that he's fine."
"If the game were (yesterday), I would say Colt would play."
Just because Brennan is cleared doesn't necessarily mean he will receive the bulk of playing time against the Wolf Pack. He took just five snaps against the Warriors' scout team during practice yesterday, and backups Tyler Graunke and Inoke Funaki still got the lion's share of the work.
"Tyler will be next and Inoke will probably get some playing time as well," quarterbacks coach Dan Morrison said. "They'll both see playing time. You have to prepare for this, and they're both planning on doing that. So in their mind-set, they assume they will play."
Nevada (5-4, 3-2 Western Athletic Conference) features a powerful rushing offense (11th nationally) behind versatile freshman quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running back Luke Lippincott (117.1 yards per game, 10 TDs).
Similar to the smashmouth contest against the Bulldogs, the Warriors (9-0, 6-0) will have to stop the run -- of both Lippincott and Kaepernick -- to have a chance at nabbing their first win in Reno in four tries.