This won’t be just any other game for Nevada head coach Brian Polian. The Wolf Pack head coach returns to South Bend this weekend, where he served as an assistant to Charlie Weis from 2005 to 2009. And while his time coaching the Irish ended when Weis was dismissed by athletic director Jack Swarbrick, Polian’s fondness for Notre Dame is undiminished.
“It was an incredibly formative time in my life and my career,” Polian said on Tuesday. “I have personal feelings for the place that you can’t help…
“I’m forever indebted to Charlie Weis for giving me the opportunity at 29 years of age to go coach there. My memories of the university and my time there are very fond. They’re very warm.”
Now he faces the challenge of beating the very same program that made it possible for him to quickly climb the coaching ladder. And even if the Wolf Pack catch the Irish with an opening game loss and questions on both sides of the ball, Polian knows—and speaks from experience—that things aren’t quite as dire as they seem.
“I think there’s part of the fan base that thinks the sky is falling right now, and I can assure them, it’s not,” Polian said.
So the fourth-year head coach, just 19-20 in his three seasons after taking over for legendary coach Chris Ault, will bring his program to South Bend looking for a “signature win.” The last time the Wolf Pack visited, Ault’s more talented team—led by star quarterback Colin Kaepernick—left disappointed, shutout by Jon Tenuta’s Irish defense.
While there’s no way to draw off that disappointing experience and visit to a place Polian calls “one of the great cathedrals in college football,” he believes some of the big stages his team has played on lately will have them better prepared to deal with a soldout home crowd eager to see the Irish play well.
“Once you’ve played on the road in the SEC, it might be the same but it won’t be any harder,” Polian said, referencing last year’s visit to Texas A&M, where the Wolf Pack fought hard, but eventually lost 44-27. “There were 102,000 at Texas A&M last year and we hung in there and fought out tails off. I have no reason to think we won’t do the same this week.”
After needing overtime to beat Cal Poly last week, Polian expects to see improvement from his young team. That said, he knows Notre Dame will have the same jump, sounding almost sympathetic to the youthful nature of the Irish secondary.
“I don’t care where you are, if you’ve got three freshman playing in the defensive backfield, it’s hard—it doesn’t matter what school you’re at,” Polian said. “Freshmen are freshman. No matter how talented they are, they lack experience. And then you put them in front of 103,000 in that setting, and obviously there’s going to be some growing pains. I have no doubt that they’ll be significantly improved with that experience when they face us.”
Speaking of the Notre Dame secondary, the starting lineup appears to be tweaked, with Devin Studstill starting opposite Drue Tranquill. Last week, the Irish chose to go with Tranquill and Avery Sebastian. They abandoned that pairing midway through the game, pulling Tranquill in favor of Studstill when it was clear that the 230-pounder wasn’t going to be able to run vertical with the opponent.
Kelly talked about making sure Tranquill was back on his game—a very important piece of the puzzle, especially back at home as a strong safety and will Sebastian a game-time decision after suffering a concussion late in the game against Texas.
“We’ve got to get him back out there and, again, it’s a learning process,” Kelly said. “Some of the mistakes out there were ones that he’s aware of that, again, we just have to be better.
“We’ve got to communicate and teach better. We’ve got to make sure that he’s clearly understanding what we’re asking of him and making sure that we get that on game day. So we come back out and make sure that Drue understands what is expected and he needs to come through for us.”
A week after Jay Hayes didn’t play a snap, Kelly is hopeful the veteran defensive end will be able to contribute, sharing some of the load with junior Andrew Trumbetti.
“It was a personnel kind of game for us in terms of running Jay Hayes in and out of the game there,” Kelly conceded. “It was going to be difficult with him not at 100 percent. He should be closer this week to being able to give us reps.”
If I’m reading between the lines, I’d expect the Irish staff to do everything they can to get Hayes back to full go before putting him on the field, especially knowing that Michigan State is just a week away.
Perhaps that opens the door for freshman Daelin Hayes to get some playing time, capable of coming off the edge in speed situations. Whatever the case, the Irish need Trumbetti to be better.