Opponent Outlook: Escape from Cal Poly has Nevada set for Irish

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

It may not have been the opener Nevada head football coach Brian Polian had dreamed about, but last Friday’s 30-27 overtime escape from Cal Poly, an FCS team, got the job done.

Polian, who spent time on Charlie Weis’ staff at Notre Dame, will bring the Wolf Pack into South Bend to face the Irish Saturday.

Chris Murray, Nevada football beat writer for the Reno Gazette Journal, gives fans an idea of what they can expect from the Wolf Pack.

ND Insider: Offensively, what caused the problems after Nevada’s fast (leading 21-7 after the first quarter) start?

Chris Murray: Cal Poly did what a lot of teams did against Nevada last season: Load the box and make the Wolf Pack beat them through the air. Nevada struggled against this kind of tactic last season and it wasn’t much better in this game. Cal Poly was one of the poorer FCS defenses last season, but Nevada couldn’t take advantage of that, mustering just two second-half first downs. It certainly didn’t help that Cal Poly went on some long drives on offense, limiting the number of possessions the Wolf Pack had (just four in the second half). But once Cal Poly slowed down Nevada’s run game, the Wolf Pack offense was fairly powerless. Nevada scored twice in the first six minutes, including once on a short field following a Cal Poly fumble, but was rather pedestrian after that. I expect Nevada to mix some things up against Notre Dame, potentially throwing more on first down to open up the run game.

NDI: How hard will it be for the Wolf Pack defense to transition from Cal Poly’s option to Notre Dame’s offense?

Murray: It’s obviously a big change but Nevada is probably happy to be leaving the triple-option behind. The Wolf Pack has played that triple option four times in the last five seasons, allowing 48, 42 and 45 points in three games to Air Force, and then 27 in this one, which isn’t a high figure but Cal Poly had a lot of success on the ground. Basically, if Cal Poly didn’t fumble (and it had five of those; only one recovered by Nevada) it was moving the ball down the field. The Notre Dame speed and quarterback play will obviously be a huge step forward for Nevada. The Wolf Pack secondary will be tested far more. Nevada’s safeties are good players, but the cornerbacks can be vulnerable. Couple that with six new starters on the front seven and a number of Wolf Pack defenders will get their first major test.

NDI: What surprised you in the opener?

Murray: That the game went into overtime. Cal Poly was a 4-7 FCS team last year. Nevada never should have let it come down to an overtime period, but Cal Poly pretty much dominated the last three quarters and was far, far superior in the second half. The Wolf Pack receivers made some tremendous catches, which wasn’t the biggest surprise since they had an excellent fall camp as a group, but I didn’t see this one being an overly competitive game, especially after Nevada’s quick start. Playing an FCS team down to the wire can’t be great for confidence heading into a game against a nationally-ranked team.

NDI: How has head coach Brian Polian (a former Notre Dame assistant) framed the game with Notre Dame since the start of camp?

Murray: Polian hasn’t even mentioned it outside of being asked about the game a couple of times. His sole focus has been on Cal Poly (Nevada started to run scout team defense against the triple-option a week into fall camp), so he hasn’t said much about the Irish. Still, it has to be a huge game for him because Notre Dame really gave him his first big break in the business by hiring him when he was an assistant at UCF. Polian was only 30 at the time and his longest stay at a school came at Notre Dame. He clearly has friends and connections there still, which is how this game was scheduled. Polian has had a few “homecoming” type games lately. Last year, Nevada played at Buffalo (where he grew up and got his first assistant job) and Texas A&M (where he was an assistant when Nevada hired him), so he’s used to this routine. As for the players, I do a survey of the team on media day every year and one of the questions was, “What game are you most looking forward to this season?” Obviously, Notre Dame topped that poll.

NDI: After playing in front of 19,138 fans at home, how will the Wolf Pack deal with 80,000 fans and national TV at Notre Dame?

Murray: I don’t think it will be a problem for most of the players. Nevada played in front of 105,000 at Texas A&M last season and actually made it a fairly competitive game, falling 44-27. So, I don’t think 80,000 fans will affect the team too much, specifically the offense, which is very veteran. The defense has some youth on that front seven, so if nerves are going to play a factor, it would be with that group. Nevada didn’t do so well in its last trip to Notre Dame. That Colin Kaepernick-led team lost 35-0 in 2009.

Nevada running back James Butler looks for running room against UC-Davis.(Photo courtesy of Nevada Athletics)