COLUMBIA — It's a tremendous loss. It will be difficult to replace him. The only option is to fill his 1,980-yard career rushing void and move on.
Nevada coach Chris Ault praised senior Luke Lippincott on Monday when asked to consider the impact of his showcase running back's season-ending knee injury. Lippincott, a first-team All-Western Athletic Conference rusher who averaged 109.2 yards per game last season, tore his left ACL in the second quarter of Saturday's loss to Texas Tech. The preseason WAC offensive player of the year candidate will be sidelined when Nevada faces No. 6 Missouri on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
"For us, he was a great player," Ault said. "He was certainly a motivational factor on and off the field."
Lippincott's absence creates opportunity for younger backfield reserves. Against the Red Raiders, sophomore Vai Taua (11 carries for 63 yards) and junior Brandon Fragger (10 carries for 44 yards) saw action in the Wolf Pack's run-heavy pistol scheme. Redshirt freshman Lampford Mark could also play despite never having seen the field before. Wolf Pack officials plan to petition the NCAA to allow Lippincott, who also missed the 2005 season with an ACL tear, a sixth season due to medical hardship.
Lippincott's injury means quarterback Colin Kaepernick must shoulder greater offensive production against an MU defense that has surrendered an average of 433 yards per game this season, the worst in the Big 12 Conference. Through two games, the 6-foot-6 sophomore has averaged 6.2 yards a carry on 23 attempts, including three touchdown runs. Last season, Kaepernick, the returning WAC freshman of the year, threw for 2,175 yards and 19 touchdowns in eight starts. In November, he took over for former starter Nick Graziano after Graziano suffered a broken foot during a loss to Fresno State. Kaepernick entered fall camp as the No. 1 option, and he beat Graziano for the starting job, leading Nevada to a season-opening victory over Grambling State in a game in which the Wolf Pack produced 49 points and 629 yards.
"They have a few other good running backs that can play," MU coach Gary Pinkel said. "That quarterback can run real well. He can run the option. They can do a lot of different things."
MU's defense must prepare for Nevada's unorthodox pistol formation. In the set, the quarterback lines up about four yards behind the center to create a hybrid between the traditional shotgun and I-formation schemes. It allows the quarterback to hand off to the tailback with greater speed, creating a tempo change that causes defensive personnel to make unfamiliar reads. Wolf Pack rushers have averaged 325 yards per game this season, fifth-best in the country.
Ault introduced the formation during spring practice in 2005. That season, Nevada claimed a WAC co-championship and a Hawaii Bowl victory, in its first bowl appearance since 1996. Since then, the Wolf Pack has made two consecutive bowl trips (2006 MPC Computers Bowl and 2007 New Mexico Bowl). Last year, Nevada ranked seventh in the nation in total offense, producing 488.9 yards per game.
"We created it to get our quarterback a little bit more involved in play-action pass and give us an opportunity to run the ball better," Ault said. "That was the total crux for it. Since that time, we have gone to the split-back look at times. We are mostly pistol. The crux of the whole thing was to better our run game and our play-action game, and the rest has taken off from there."
MU linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said: "We just need to make sure we drop in coverage right and stop the run, because they have a funky formation that can get you."
Yet Nevada's pistol may fire blanks without its silver bullet. Lippincott's absence will alter MU's defensive approach, but coaches said they are well aware of the present threat.
"We work on it all the time," Pinkel said. "The scout team will work whatever they do over and over."