Five Things to Watch Out For
Look out for #1Nevada head coach Brian Polian implemented a new tradition this season: The #1 jersey is no longer assigned to one player, each week a special #1 jersey will be awarded to the outstanding walk-on special teams player. This player represents the student body and the Reno/Tahoe community. Watch for this player on special teams and cheer loud for him.
Who will start at Left Tackle for Nevada?Austin Corbett sprained an ankle at the end of the Southern Utah game, with the Friday game, he's had a shorter week to recover. If he can't go, Jacob Henry could start at this key offensive line spot. How will that effect Nevada's run game and pass protection? If he's unable to go, watch to see whether Washington State tries to test his replacement, Cougar LB Kache Palacio is a hybrid type player who they will move around the line, much like Nevada did with Dontay Moch late in the 2010 season. If Nevada struggles in pass protection and is unable to establish the run, it's game over.
"Sophomore slump" for Jerico RichardsonNevada has seen its fair share of break out performances from young players over the years who weren't able to replicate that success on a consistent basis (Mike Ball anyone?) Saturday's break out performance by Jerico Richardson was a big confidence booster for the young receiver and gives the Wolf Pack a reliable 3rd option at wide receiver, but Washington State is a whole new ball game. Senior Richy Turner drew a lot of double coverage against Southern Utah and opened things up for Richardson, it's doubtful the Cougars will need to focus as much on Nevada's most veteran receiver, it's unlikely Richardson have as much space to work with this week.
Washington State Wide ReceiversCougar QB Connor Halliday is what makes their offense go but it's the receivers who make it lethal. #1 Vince Mayle (6-3, 220) is a big outside receiver who they'll use a lot in the quick game, he's tough to bring down and makes a lot of players miss. #21 River Cracraft (6-0, 199) is a player who will look to exploit soft spots in zone coverage, he's also a player that Halliday likes to look for when under pressure.
Who will be Nevada's featured backDon Jackson is obviously the starting back for the Wolf Pack, but true freshman James Butler is an exciting player the staff would like to get involved and Nate McLaurin played very well in the 4th quarter of last week's game. Nevada rotated their backs in frequently against the Thunderbirds, it will be interesting to see how many carries Butler and McLaurin get.
Five Keys to the Game
Run the ball efficientlyWashington State has lost 9 straight games when surrendering 200 yards or more on defense. They've gone 8-1 when holding opponents to less than 200 yards rushing. (h/t to WashingtonState.Scout.com) Nevada can put up those kinds of numbers, no problem, the question is can they do it efficiently. 200 yards on more than 50 carries would be straining the bounds of rushing efficiency. Sure, it's 4 yards a carry, but that usually means there were a lot of 1,2 and 3 yard gains in there as well and that would mean the Wolf Pack offense probably spent a lot of time "behind the chains." The Nevada running game has looked anemic last season and in Saturday's contest against Southern Utah. It's got to get healthy in a hurry if Nevada hopes to win on Friday.
Force a second readThe Cougars don't run ball, Mike Leach is allergic to it, blows like a puffer fish with a pirate eye patch when they do. Ok, that might not be entirely true, but it's true they don't run the ball, and Leach doesn't care if you think that's silly. He would probably tell you his quarterback can snap the ball and get it 5 yards downfield on a slant to a WR faster than any RB could do the same and with a lot less grunting, fussing and pushing from the offensive line. The ball comes out very fast and when it's clicking, it neutralizes the pass rush. The Wolf Pack defensive line needs to clog the passing lanes and the secondary needs to force Connor Halliday into looking for his 2nd and 3rd reads; buy Nevada's pass rushers enough time to get up field and get to the quarterback. They don't need to sack him, but they need to get him out of rhythm and get their hands up to force some tipped balls. Easier said than done but it's got to happen if the Wolf Pack have any hope of disrupting the Cougars offensive attack.
Get off to a fast startWashington State is a Pac-12 opponent, Nevada the MWC. Any question of the Cougar's superiority needs to be dispelled early to keep the Nevada players believing, the Washington State players doubting and the home crowd rowdy. Many of the Wolf Pack seniors were on the team in 2012 when Nevada beat Cal and then let one slip away against Arizona in the New Mexico Bowl. Fajardo needs to have a game like he did against Arizona, arguably the best game of his career. In both games, the Wolf Pack got off to fast starts that left their opponents reeling. The Cougars don't want to start 0-2 and if they sense it happening, to a perceived weaker opponent, panic could start to set in on the sidelines. Panicked players rarely make good decisions.
"We know what it feels like to beat a Pac-12 team. We have to make these younger guys believe and have a great practice mentality. I think everybody's bought in."
- Nevada QB Cody Fajardo
Tackle in spaceRemember those 5 yards slants we talked about? Those short, quick passes have a habit of turning into long gains. Nevada's back 7 needs to tackle well in space and prevent any of those 5 yard pass plays from turning into 40 yard touchdowns. Twice against Southern Utah, the Wolf Pack defense let small gains turn into big plays. It was an Achilles heel last season and it reared its ugly head again in the opening game of the season. This game could get out of hand in a hurry if that issue isn't fixed.
Win the 1st half AND the 2nd half.The Wolf Pack won or played well in a lot of 1st halves last season, but wilted in the 2nd of a lot of games. UCLA, Florida State, Boise State, BYU were all games that Nevada either led at the half or played well enough to still be in it. Whether it was depth, conditioning or coaching adjustments, the Pack was one of the worst 2nd half teams in the country last season. That appeared to change the first game of this season, and were it not for the slow 1st half start, a couple of defensive lapses and a mystifying play call that led to an 85 yard pick 6 the Wolf Pack would've rolled to a win. Nevada needs to put together 2 solid halves to push their record to 2-0 and grab a confidence boosting victory on Friday.
Random AnecdoteThe last time Washington State head coach Mike Leach coached a game at Mackay Stadium, he was leading the Texas Tech Red Raiders to a hard fought 35-19 win over the Wolf Pack at the start of the 2008 season. Before the game, Leach called his friend Jim Mastro who was the Wolf Pack running back's coach at the time if the crowd at Mackay was very loud. Mastro told Leach the stadium could get rowdy but was nothing like a Big-12 venue so "not really." So during practice that week, Leach and his staff didn't prepare for any crowd noise. Well, game day rolls around and unbeknownst to Jim Mastro the University of Nevada had a game day promotion where the first 10,000 fans were issued thunder sticks. Most of the fans who received these noise makers were sitting in the end zone seats and made the Red Raider's lives miserable for most of the game with incessant banging. Texas Tech came out on top but Leach had a laugh about it after the game.
Neil Henderson can be reached via Twitter.