Sept. 3, 2009
|By Tim Prister ’82
Game 1: Nevada (Sept. 5)
Conference: Western Athletic Conference (WAC)
2008 record: 7-6, including 42-35 loss to Maryland in Humanitarian Bowl
2009 record: 0-0, season-opener at Notre Dame
Location: Notre Dame Stadium
Kickoff: 3:42 p.m. ET
TV Coverage: NBC
Nevada head coach: Chris Ault led Nevada to seven conference titles and a 163-63-1 record during his first two stints in Reno from 1976-92 and 1994-95. Ault served as Nevada’s athletic director from 1986-2003 before returning to the sideline.
The Wolf Pack is 35-28 in the last five years under Ault, including 24-16 in the WAC. They have participated in four straight bowl games.
Pistol offense: Known for his unique offensive approach, Ault’s Pistol offense ranked fifth in the country in yards per game in ’08 with 508.5. The Pistol places the quarterback in the shotgun as a run-pass threat, which returning signalcaller Colin Kaepernick took full advantage of last season.
Kaepernick, just a junior this year, became the first quarterback in college history to rush for more than 1,000 yards (1,130) and pass for more than 2,500 yards (2,849) in the same season. Kaepernick averaged seven yards per carry and scored 17 rushing touchdowns to go along with 22 passing touchdowns. He was intercepted just seven times in 383 attempts.
“I’ve watched every game of (Kaepernick’s) last year, and obviously a guy who rushed for 1,000 yards and passed for 2,000 yards had a heckuva year,” said Notre Dame defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta.
“He can run the football and make guys miss in space. He has touch on the ball, he’s got a strong arm… he’s a complete player.”
Kaepernick’s effectiveness is balanced by junior running back Vai Taua, who rushed for 1,521 yards (6.4 per carry) and 15 touchdowns in ’08. Taua got his chance when Luke Lippincott – a 1,420-yard rusher in `07 – suffered a knee injury in the second week of the season.
That makes the Wolf Pack the only known team in college football history to enter a season with three 1,000-yard rushers.
A key matchup to watch – Sam Young (pictured) and his fellow offesive tackles against Nevada’s athletic defensive ends.
Passing fancy: The Wolf Pack has struggled on the defensive side of the ball, particularly against the pass in ’08. Nevada allowed 311.6 yards passing per game, which was blown a bit out of proportion by the 519 yards that Chase Daniel and Co. accumulated for Missouri in game three. But even without that aerial assault in the Tigers’ 69-17 victory over Nevada, the Wolf Pack allowed nearly 295 yards passing per game.
“We had some freshmen playing (in the secondary), and we just seemed to continually bite ourselves,” Ault said. “We’re optimistic that all those kids are back, and they’re all experienced. We went through two years with guys who didn’t really understand what was expected of them.”
Sack attack: Nevada boasts the most productive defensive end tandem returning to the college game in ’09. Juniors Kevin Basped and Dontay Moch combined for 21.5 sacks and 36 tackles for lost yardage – as sophomores! Basped – 6-foot-6, 240 pounds – has the ‘measurables’ that NFL scouts crave. Moch – 6-foot-1, 245 pounds – led the Wolf Pack in sacks last year with 11.5 (to Basped’s 10).
“They’re both very good players,” said Irish offensive line coach Frank Verducci. “Basped is a projected high draft pick and rightfully so after looking at him on tape from last year. As a combination, they’re very good. You can’t focus so much on Basped that you leave Moch alone because he had more sacks than Basped.
“They’re great combination players. They play the run well and they excel at playing the pass. So they’re a challenge for our tackles and I know both guys (Paul Duncan and Sam Young) are looking forward to it.”
Run stoppers: While the Wolf Pack had difficulty against the pass in `08, they were quite stout against the run, ranking 6th in the country while allowing just 88.6 yards rushing per game. Nevada foes managed just 3.06 yards per carry. Those numbers were strongly influenced by Nevada’s 34 sacks. Seven of the Wolf Pack’s 13 opponents rushed for 71 yards or less, including San Jose State’s minus-23 yards on 16 carries.
Battling the big boys: The Wolf Pack has won 35 games over the last five seasons and has gone on to post-season play each of the last four campaigns.
Nevada has done most of its damage against the Western Athletic Conference. They are 21-11 the last four seasons in the WAC, but 1-8 against BCS-conference schools over the last four seasons.
In those nine games against BCS-conference schools, the Wolf Pack has been out-scored 383-205, including the 52-point loss at Missouri in ’08.
Only Northwestern in 2006 (31-21) has fallen to Nevada in that nine-game challenge. The Wolf Pack lost 55-21 to Washington State in 2005, 52-21 at Arizona State in 2006, 52-10 at Nebraska and 36-31 at Northwestern in 2007, and 35-19 to Texas Tech in 2008.
Nevada played competitively but lost to Maryland, 42-35, in last year’s Humanitarian Bowl, and fell 21-20 to Miami in the 2006 MPC Computers Bowl.
Ault on Notre Dame: “We played Missouri last year and saw (a group of receivers) as good as there is. I think Notre Dame is as talented as any team we’ve played.
“We’re very familiar with (Jimmy) Clausen. I’m from southern Cal and I recruit southern Cal. I know of his background. He’s a terrific quarterback. There’s no question that’s a heckuva challenge. They’ll be a balanced offense. We’ve got to be consistent on our side of the ball and not give up a big play.”
Opportunity knocks: Kaepernick knows that a trip to Notre Dame presents the Wolf Pack with a chance to enhance the exposure of the Nevada football program.
“This is definitely a great opportunity to get our name out there on a national level, and really show the nation what we’re capable of and what Nevada football is all about,” said Kaepernick, a high school pitcher and former Notre Dame baseball recruit.
“Everybody is really excited about it. I don’t think anyone (at Nevada) has played on a stage this big before, and everyone is really looking forward to it. Everyone knows what’s at stake and wants to start the season off right and let everyone know what we can do.”
“We’re very familiar with (Jimmy) Clausen. I’m from southern Cal and I recruit southern Cal. I know of his background. He’s a terrific quarterback. There’s no question that’s a heckuva challenge. They’ll be a balanced offense. We’ve got to be consistent on our side of the ball and not give up a big play.”Nevada head coach Chris Ault
Key match-ups: Irish offensive tackles Sam Young, Paul Duncan and Matt Romine versus Nevada defensive ends Kevin Basped and Dontay Moch. The Nevada defensive end duo was outstanding in ’08, but the Irish allowed just 22 sacks in 13 games.
Notre Dame wide receivers Michael Floyd and Golden Tate versus Wolf Pack cornerbacks Antoine Thompson and Isaiah Frey. Nevada allowed eight opponents to throw for 289 yards or more in `08; Floyd and Tate combined for 106 receptions, 1,799 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Notre Dame’s offensive line versus Nevada’s defensive front. The Irish averaged just 3.27 yards rushing per attempt last year and managed just 156 yards rushing over the final three games combined; Nevada held eight opponents under 3.0 yards per rush.
Fighting Irish facts: Nevada is one of just two schools (Oklahoma is the other) to return a pair of 1,000-yard rushers from ’08 … Ault – a College Football Hall of Fame inductee – ranks sixth in career victories among active coaches with 198 … Nevada was picked to finish second in the WAC (behind Boise State) by the league’s coaches and media … Ranked No. 23 in the AP pre-season, the Irish find themselves among the top 25 for the first time since the Sugar Bowl against LSU on Jan. 3, 2007 … Notre Dame defensive line coach Randy Hart will be coaching his fifth game in Notre Dame Stadium. The previous four were with Purdue (1978 and 1980) and Washington (1996 and 2004) – all Notre Dame victories … Nevada becomes the 64th different team to visit Notre Dame Stadium with the Irish owning a 54-8-1 mark (.865) in games when the opponent was making its first visit. Last year’s season-opening foe – San Diego State – was the 63rd different opponent to visit Notre Dame Stadium.
Tim Prister – Notre Dame’s starting third baseman in 1981-82 – is an `82 graduate in his 28th year covering Notre Dame football. He is the senior editor of IrishIllustrated.com after serving 20 years as editor of Blue & Gold Illustrated. Entering the 2009 season, he has attended and reported on 279 straight Notre Dame football games – every one since Lou Holtz’s first in 1986.