BOISE, Idaho -- The wash of blue that engulfs Bronco Stadium on game days is supposed to be a sea of intimidation for opponents.
The first time Kaepernick set foot on the famous blue turf here, he nearly engineered one of the biggest upsets in Nevada history before falling in a wild 69-67 four overtime loss to Boise State a year ago -- in his first college start.
Now he's back for Tuesday's Humanitarian Bowl against Maryland, hoping that another standout performance can be the catalyst for a big 2009 that might finally get Kaepernick recognized outside the Western Athletic Conference.
"We definitely have potential to be a great team with all the young athletes that we have," Kaepernick said. "But at the same time, we have to fulfill that potential to become a great team."
A victory against Maryland would be a step toward fulfilling that promise and potentially rising to the same level of WAC rival Boise State.
Nevada (7-5) has won only two games against BCS conference teams since making the move from Division I-AA to major college football in 1992.
Certainly everyone in the WAC is aware of Kaepernick's rare talents running and throwing, enough that the sophomore was conference offensive player of the year, only the second Nevada player to win the award since the Wolf Pack joined the league in 2000.
Kaepernick ended the regular season with 2,479 yards passing, another 1,115 yards on the ground and a combined 35 touchdowns. When Nevada coach Chris Ault implemented his "pistol" offense three years ago, he could only dream of it being run with the type of efficiency Kaepernick has shown.
"He's learned the offense this year," Ault said. "Last year he played and he played by the seat of his pants. ... The nuances of the offense he is still picking up, but he has a much, much better feel of what we want to accomplish with it."
What makes the Wolf Pack offense so unique and difficult to defend is deception, especially when it comes to running the option out of their hybrid shotgun formation. Unlike typical formations where the running back will line up to one side of the quarterback, Nevada tailback Vai Taua will be aligned behind Kaepernick. That keeps the defense from being able to key on what direction the play might be going.
That tactic is a big reason why Kaepernick has already recorded the 24th best season in yards rushing by a quarterback in Football Bowl Subdivision history. Taua, who started the season fourth on the depth chart, has rushed for 1,420 yards and 14 touchdowns. When the Wolf Pack decides to throw, Marko Mitchell has 1,011 yards receiving and another nine scores.
"It makes the defense more sit back and read and when you are an aggressive defense it's a pain," Maryland defensive end Jeremy Navarre said.
It's a formidable offensive scheme Ault has developed and one that's still evolving. Yet for all the impressive numbers Nevada posted this season, it continues to be overshadowed by Boise State -- this week by the massive new skybox complex on the west side of Bronco Stadium.
Maryland's task is not only slowing down Nevada's offense, but also finding the motivation to reverse a late season slide. The Terrapins (7-5) lost a shot at playing in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game by losing their final two games. The Terps were 7-3 and had just knocked off No. 17 North Carolina 17-15 to keep their ACC title game hopes alive when they came out flat and were routed by Florida State at home 37-3, then lost at Boston College 28-21 to close out the regular season.
"It sounds dumb, but we just didn't play well," Maryland quarterback Chris Turner said. "We just played very poorly."
The task for Turner and running back Da'Rel Scott will be trying to match Nevada on the offensive end. Ault believes Maryland is the most balanced team his squad will have faced all year, which might be welcome for the Wolf Pack considering how they were blitzed by Missouri, Texas Tech and Boise State for 1,230 yards passing during the season.
Scott's ability to run might be most crucial in keeping the Wolf Pack offense on the cold sidelines. Scott was second in the ACC in rushing, but topped 100 yards only once in the final four games,and was held to 11 yards by Virginia Tech and 19 by Boston College.
"When we're clicking, we can be pretty potent," Turner said.