The Irish have a home opener to prepare for. And a week after being the centerpiece on the biggest opening weekend college football can remember, they’ve got a distinctly different job—getting ready for a game that’s far from buzz worthy.
That doesn’t mean the Nevada Wolf Pack should be taken lightly. Even after squeaking out an overtime victory against FCS Cal Poly, Brian Polian brings his young team into South Bend intent on being the latest former Notre Dame assistant to topple the Irish.
With an experienced quarterback and a talented ground game, Polian must feel good after watching the Notre Dame defense struggle with Texas. Even as he did his best to assuage Irish fans that the sky wasn’t falling, there’s likely more confidence coming from Reno than if Notre Dame was riding high off a comeback victory.
Joining us during a busy week is the Reno Gazette-Journal’s Chris Murray. Murray is the RGJ’s sports columnist, and has had a front row seat for Brian Polian’s takeover of the Wolf Pack’s football program. He’s done the dirty work that comes with helping Irish fans get beyond a tough night in Austin and get ready for the home opener.
Hope you enjoy.
Seemed like a tale of two halves last Saturday as Nevada pulled out an overtime win against Cal Poly. At their best, the Wolf Pack made things look easy. At their worse, things got beyond interesting, especially when Cal Poly had a chance to win on a two-point conversion attempt late. What’d you make of the Wolf Pack’s 2016 debut?
I would grade it a C- or D+ overall simply for being pushed into overtime by an FCS team that went 4-7 last season. Of course, Cal Poly runs a triple-option and has led the FCS in rushing three straight seasons, so it was an odd matchup. The defense actually looked fine but the offense didn’t take advantage of a Cal Poly defense that allowed more than 35 points per game to FCS foes last year.
The offensive looked great in the first quarter but did almost nothing for the rest of the game, including just 14 plays (and two first downs) on four series in the second half. That was worrisome as was the fact Nevada couldn’t put away Cal Poly after a strong first 15 minutes. It will take us a couple of months to see if this was an anomaly or a foreshadowing of how the rest of the season will play out. Obviously, Nevada hopes it is the former.
Notre Dame fans have known Brian Polian since Charlie Weis had him on his coaching staff. Polian seemed a long way from a head coaching gig in those years, known mostly for his huge recruiting win landing Manti Te’o. You had an excellent profile of Polian before the season started, but what’s his tenure been like in Reno?
Slow-moving might be the best way to put it. He’s now one-game below .500 since he became Nevada’s head coach in 2013 (19-20 overall) and while he’s clearly improved the Wolf Pack’s classroom efforts and kept the team out of the “bad part of the newspaper,” as Nevada’s athletic director put it, the Wolf Pack seems stuck at the 7-6 mark, which is where it was in the two years before Polian was hired.
The offense has declined during his tenure while the defense has improved. This was expected to be the breakthrough season and it still could but that first impression wasn’t the best. Wolf Pack fans also don’t seem to be completely on board as the season-opening attendance was under 20,000, its lowest for a home opener since 2010 (when Nevada counted actual attendance rather than tickets distributed). After this season, Polian has only one year left on his contract, so it’s kind of a make-or-break season. He did say that without his stint at Notre Dame he wouldn’t be a head coach today. He was very complementary of his time in South Bend.
Quarterback Tyler Stewart seemed to pick up where he left off after a nice junior season — showing some much improved accuracy against Cal Poly when they committed to stopping the run. Obviously, he’ll face a stiffer opponent next Saturday. But is it as simple as saying the offense will succeed if Stewart plays well? Or is getting James Butler and the ground game rolling behind an experienced offensive line more important?
Given how much emphasis Nevada puts on its rushing attack, I think it’s fair to say that how the Wolf Pack will run the ball will dictate its offensive success. Obviously the quarterback has a huge role in every offense and that’s no different for Nevada. If the Wolf Pack is going to compete for a Mountain West West Division title or flirt with nine or 10 wins, Stewart has to be a top-50 quarterback in the nation.
He doesn’t have to carry the team like Colin Kaepernick and Cody Fajardo did in recent seasons, but he has guide a more explosive passing attack, which is under the direction of first-year coordinator Tim Cramsey. Still, the Wolf Pack is going to run the ball 60 percent of the time and wants to pound away on first and second down and then use play action. So, the run game is the biggest key.
Defensively, it’s tough to take much from a season opener against an opponent like Cal Poly. But Scott Boone’s troops came up with some big plays when they needed to, especially in overtime. Who are a few defenders who need to play big on Saturday in South Bend.
Yeah, there’s not much Notre Dame can derive from the Wolf Pack’s opener, which Scott Boone likes. He’s made some changes in the offseason that will debut against Notre Dame and is hopeful that’s an advantage because the Irish haven’t seen the Wolf Pack’s traditional defense yet this season.
The top two playmakers are the safeties: Dameon Baber, who was second-team All-MW last year as a true freshman (he didn’t debut until game four because he was going to redshirt) and Asauni Rufus, who led Nevada with 105 tackles last season as a redshirt freshman. Both of those guys are excellent athletes, especially Baber, who originally committed to Oregon State out of high school.
The front seven is young, with six new starters. If there’s one guy you want to key on who could give Notre Dame trouble it is sophomore defensive end Malik Reed, who the coaches are high on. He has to get pressure in the backfield all game long if Nevada has a shot at the upset.
Notre Dame’s coming off a short week and an emotional loss. Polian knows Notre Dame. Can Nevada play better than the last time they came to South Bend, when Colin Kaepernick, Chris Ault and a very good Nevada team got blown away?
Nevada is hoping it does better than that 35-0 performance. There are two things playing in Nevada’s favor: (1) The extra prep time. Nevada played Friday and Notre Dame late Sunday. That’s two extra days or prep. Plus, Notre Dame is playing Nevada between two big games (Texas and Michigan State). Not matter what they say, the Irish aren’t going to treat Nevada like those other two teams; and (2) The Wolf Pack has played at Texas A&M (in 2015) and Florida State and UCLA (in 2013) in recent seasons, so the big stage shouldn’t be an issue.
The Wolf Pack played Texas A&M tough (44-27 with Nevada inside the 10-yard line in the final minutes before essentially taking a knee) in front of 103,000 fans. So, 80,000 at Notre Dame shouldn’t be an issue. That doesn’t mean Nevada is going to threaten in this one, but the size of the game shouldn’t derail them. Nevada’s 2009 roster that lost at Notre Dame, 35-0, was one of the most talented in school history. The Wolf Pack just didn’t show up in that game. Even though this Nevada team isn’t as talented, it should do better than 35-0.