The Nevada Wolfpack doesn’t play Notre Dame very often. Their last meeting was in 2009 when the Irish steamrolled the Pack 35-0. But Nevada is an unknown quantity this year. As they find themselves on the 2016 Notre Dame football schedule, what can the Wolfpack bring to the party?
Nevada’s Offense – Not Bad
Coach Brian Polian spent five years as an assistant at Notre Dame under Charlie Weis serving a number of different roles during his tenure in South Bend. As he enters his fourth season as the head coach of Nevada, Polian has things trending in the right direction after a rocky start including an Arizona Bowl victory over Colorado St.
Polian has 9 returning starters and a new offensive coordinator, Tim Cramsey from Montana State. Cramsey’s 2015 Montana State offense averaged 41.9 points and 520 yards of total offense per game. He hopes to bring more of a spread offense to Nevada this year, something Notre Dame will have to watch for. Junior running back James Butler posted 1,342 yards and 10 touchdowns last year, and Cramsey doesn’t want defenses keying in on Butler.
The Wolfpack has some issues at quarterback. Last year’s starter Tyler Stewart threw for 2,139 yards and 15 touchdowns but also turned in 7 interceptions. Also of concern to the Wolfpack, his pass completion was only 57%. This year, the senior qb is backed up by junior transfer Ty Gangi from Ventura College, but his stats are similar to Stewart’s at 64.7% completion rate and 6 interceptions. On the other hand, an experienced offensive line could give them some protection.
In addition, Nevada can take advantage of a strong receiving corps. Two seniors–Haasan Henderson and Jerico Richardson–could be standouts. Henderson has already garnered 126 receptions, 1,646 yards and 9 touchdowns at Nevada. Last year, Richardson had 68 receptions for 750 yards and 5 tds. Senior tight end Jarred Gipson is also reliable.
The Lost Boys
Unlike Peter Pan, several Nevada players have moved on, emptying this year’s defense. Four linemen are gone, including Lenny Jones and Ian Seau, who last year produced 17 sacks, 8 pass breakups, and 31 tackles for loss. The Pack also lost 5 linebackers, adding up to a shortfall of 9 defensive starters in all. Those 5 linebackers accounted for 234.5 career tackles.
Nevada’s Defense – Not Good
As a result, the Wolfpack defense will likely be among the weakest on the 2016 Notre Dame football schedule. Returning senior lineman Salesa Faraimo had 16 tackles last year, and sophomore Malik Reed had 15; but each had only one sack. And they’ll be playing with 3 redshirt freshmen and 2 true freshmen this year. Senior linebackers Alex Bertrando and L.J. Jackson will be playing with 5 freshmen, two redshirts and three true. The secondary shows some promise, though, which the Irish will have to be aware of. Free safety Dameon Baber had 6 interceptions last year, and strong safety Asauni Rufus led the team in tackles.
Defensive coordinator Scott Boone helped the team by giving Malik Reed and Korey Rush some playing time last year. But the defense was struggling before this year’s talent drain. Last year, Nevada gave up an average of 26.8 points per game, and that’s the best they’ve done in the last 3 years. So, given the team’s current inexperience, Notre Dame can definitely take advantage of the Wolfpack defense this year, especially the pass rush.
Nevada’s Special Teams – Pretty Darn Good
Kicker Brent Zuzo hit 17 field goal attempts and led the Mountain West in field goal percentage. Punter Alex Boy has a 42-yard average, and Elijah Mitchell averaged 26.4 yard per return, running one into the end zone. Special teams could actually help the defense.
Playing Nevada this year is not a scary prospect, but Notre Dame will need to watch running back James Butler, Nevada’s receiving game, and special teams. That said, a win for the Irish could be no blarney.
The Last Time Notre Dame and Nevada Played
The Irish and Wolfpack have only squared off once before back in 2009. The Wolfpack came to town to open the 2009 season and got blown out by a Notre Dame arial attack lead by Jimmy Clausen and Michael Floyd. Clausen tossed four touchdowns on the day three of which went to Floyd. The fourth went to Kyle Rudolph. Armando Allen ran for Notre Dame’s 5th touchdown as the Irish shut out Nevada 35-0.
Floyd and Rudolph weren’t the only future NFL stars on the field that day. Nevada was led by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Unlike Clausen though, Kaepernick didn’t have a banner day throwing the football with two interceptions and no touchdowns as the Irish shut down the Wolfpack offense completely.
The game was also the collegiate debut of Manti Te’o. The Hawaiian native and future Heisman finalist didn’t start that day but did see the field in the second half.