Taua, never breaking stride along the sideline, pulled the ball in and raced to the end zone for a 79-yard touchdown just before the half of the No. 19 Wolf Pack’s 52-6 victory over New Mexico State on Saturday.
The highlight was the star attraction at Ault’s booster luncheon this week as Nevada (10-1, 5-1 Western Athletic Conference) prepares to host No. 3 Boise State (10-0, 6-0 WAC) Friday night in a nationally televised game.
“This is as good of a pass as you’ll ever see thrown, any division, any level,” Ault said, following the path of the ball with his red laser pointer.
“This is the difference between Kap this year and last year,” he said. “Last year, this ball, I would have caught it (on the sideline). Kap has thrown the ball so much better this year.”
Kaepernick this week was named one of the five finalists for the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award that goes to the top senior quarterback of the year. The other candidates are TCU’s Andy Dalton, Florida State’s Christian Ponder, Iowa’s Ricky Stanzi and Wisconsin’s Scott Tolzien.
Past winners of the award include Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, Carson Palmer and Rodney Peete. Colt McCoy won it at Texas last year and Matt Ryan at Boston College the year before that.
“It’s a great honor,” said Kaepernick, who heads into Friday night within reach of a number of NCAA records and milestones. “I tip my hat to my teammates.”
Kaepernick needs 16 rushing yards to top the 1,000-yard mark for the season, which would make him the first player in NCAA history to both run for 1,000 yards and pass for 2,000 in three consecutive seasons. Another 110 rushing yards would make him only the third quarterback in NCAA history to rush for more than 4,000 yards in his career.
Kaepernick said the only thing that matters now is the biggest game in school history. The Broncos are the highest-ranked team Nevada has ever played and it will be the first time two Top 25 teams have faced off in Reno.
“It’s a game we’ve been looking forward to for a long time,” he said. “It’s finally here.”
The 6-foot-6, three-sport star from Turlock, Calif., started turning heads the minute he stepped on the field more three years ago with the long legs that helped him accelerate around and between defenders fooled by his deceptive strides.
Drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 2009, no one ever questioned the former pitcher/centerfielder’s ability to throw the football and put up some of the biggest passing yardage numbers in the country.
Nevertheless, Ault said before the season began that if Nevada was to rise to the next level, his star signal-caller would have to improve his accuracy and decision-making picking his targets downfield.
Too often in the past at big points in big games, Ault said, a pass would sail over the head of a receiver open in the middle or at the feet of one forced to dive for a ball near the sideline.
Kaepernick agreed, telling reporters back in August, “It’s always about accuracy, but it’s more than that.”
“You always try to complete as many balls as you can. At the same time, you want to throw balls your receivers can catch and do something with,” he explained. “If they catch the ball and fall down, you get a 5-yard gain instead of having them catch it and go for 20. It’s not being as efficient as you possibly can.”
Through 10 games this year, Kaepernick has completed 66 percent of his pass attempts for a total of 2,412 yards, 19 touchdowns and six interceptions. That compares with last year’s 59 percent completion rate for 2,052 yards, 20 TDs and six interceptions.
Boise State coach Chris Petersen said Kaepernick’s improvement is apparent.
“He is throwing the ball really, really well,” Peterson said. “He has such a strong arm. He puts it right on their pads most of the time.”
“When you can run it and throw it — everybody talks about balance, and that is what they have. That’s what makes an offense hard to defend.”
Ault, who quarterbacked Nevada from 1965-67 and is now the winningest coach in school history, said the difference is Kaepernick’s passing accuracy is largely the result of a change in his release point. He now raises the ball just above his helmet — a bit higher than previously — before unleashing a pass downfield.
“He could do it before,” Ault said. “It was just a matter of knowing what needed to get done to get better. And he did that.”