Notre Dame will welcome back former assistant Brian Polian this weekend when he leads Nevada into the place where he spent five years coaching under Charlie Weis. What kind of challenge does the four-touchdown underdog represent for Notre Dame coming off Sunday night’s double overtime loss at Texas? Irish Illustrated turned to Reno Gazette-Journal beat writer Chris Murray to find out.
Pete Sampson: If you cover Notre Dame, you know what happens against triple option teams doesn’t always translate to the rest to the year. So do you see Friday night’s 30-27 overtime win over Cal Poly as a sign of things to come or more a one-off because of the option?
Chris Murray: I think Nevada is hoping it’s a one-off based on that unique matchup. And it’s not like Nevada under Polian has done well against the option either. Against Air Force the last three years they gave up 42, 48 and 45 points. But last weekend was still not expected considering Nevada got up 21-7 in the first quarter and was really dominating. Polian was strongly in the camp that he didn’t see any red flags on Friday night, felt like it was a good performance and no reason for alarm. But the perception here is more in line that people weren’t thrilled and believe it might be a foreshadowing of what’s to come. Was it just an anomaly? I don’t know. But this wasn’t the first time they struggled against option football.
PS: People spend so much time focusing on the defense of the option it’s like how teams fare offensively gets ignored. Did you learn anything about that side of the ball on Friday?
CM: I thought Nevada might look a little different but they really didn’t, even with a new offensive coordinator. The thought was that change was made to spice up the passing game and we didn’t see that. Did Nevada hold back for Notre Dame because it’s a bigger matchup? That doesn’t make a lot of sense in a close game when in the second half you run 15 plays total if you throw out a clock-burning drive at the end of regulation.
The offense did come out with a strong first quarter but then it didn’t do anything. It will be interesting if this is just getting back into the run on first down, run on second down and throw on third. That’s sort of been the approach under coach Polian. But you look at Cal Poly, that wasn’t even a good FCS defense. It should have been vulnerable.
PS: What’s the perception of Polian overall around Nevada? You had an interesting feature on him before the season, detailing some of his community work and trying to mature a bit more as a head coach.
CM: I don’t think people are overly optimistic. Season tickets were down about 1,700. That’s about 14 percent of the fan base. And the season tickets here can be had for about $99. It’s not that expensive. The opener drew about 19,000, which was the smallest announced crowd since 2010 for an opener. But in actuality, it’s probably more like the smallest crowd for an opener in 10-to-15 years.
On top of that, Polian was still really animated with the refs. The notion that he was going to show more poise was not evident in the first game, and this is against an FCS opponent. People are just not super behind the program right now. If that falls completely on Polian or if that falls on somebody else, I don’t know. The men’s hoops team was revitalized last year and maybe people spent their money there. Now, if Nevada beats Notre Dame I think you’ll see a lot of people here for Buffalo a week later.
It’s a huge season for Polian. He’s got two years left on his contract and he’s been fighting for an extension. He’s going to have to do more than go 7-5 or 6-6 to make that happen and get fans back on the bandwagon. The first game really raised questions about if that’s possible.
PS: One player that came up on Brian Kelly’s teleconference on Monday was running back James Butler, an Illinois kid. How good is he after his 1,153-yard season last year? Who else is worth watching?
CM: He’s dynamic and the main guy for sure. The No. 2 running back is interesting too in Akeel Lynch, a graduate transfer from Penn State. The rest of the offense, you won’t see many flashy playmakers. They’re using seven or eight receivers after playing mostly just three last year. So you won’t see that one main guy.
The interesting part about the receivers is their different builds. You’ve got Hasaan Henderson, a guy who’s like 6-foot-5 and seems to show up in the bigger games. Then Wyatt Demps is another big body that they can throw out there as a matchup. Demps really had a great off-season and made three catches in the opener, including a touchdown. With the guys that they have, I want to know if they’re going to get more aggressive with the receivers. When there’s so much run-run-pass, it makes it easier to defend.
There’s no real burner in the group that’s just going to run by a cornerback. But watch Victor Gonzalez. When he’s in the game it’s almost always a go route. But he’s only out there for many five plays. This is a game where what do you have to lose? Take some shots.
PS: I know Nevada lost a ton off its front seven, at least six starters. How do you see that group? Notre Dame’s strength is clearly the offensive line and in the box. Is that a matchup where they might just be able to beat Nevada up?
CM: I think I’d definitely just run the ball because you’re going to keep getting first downs every series. It’s not a big defensive line and not a big defense at all, really. They’ve tried to build the defense on speed instead of pure size, so that’s how you end up with a 230-pound middle linebacker, a 220-pound outside linebacker and a 280-pound nose tackle. The defensive ends are more in the 240-to-245 range.
But, Nevada’s safeties are both very, very good. Dameon Baber was all league as a true freshman last year. The other safety, Rufus Asauni, is also a sophomore (after a red-shirt) and led the team with 105 tackles last year. He can really come up and support the run game.
If you’re Notre Dame, run the ball. You’ll get pretty far that way. The front seven is going to have to play a lot better than last week against Cal Poly. It’s not like Nevada’s defense gives up a ton of big plays and they’re about sixth nationally in turnover margin under Polian the past three years. They’ve done a very good job there. They’ll need two or three of those this weekend.
PS: Let’s take the upset off the table and just look at the game this way, what’s a good day for Nevada and what do they have to do to achieve it?
CM: I think they have to show more explosiveness on offense. Passing game, first and foremost, comes to mind there. They have to feel like it’s a game going into the third quarter, maybe even the fourth. I’m not saying they need to win the game, but they have to believe that they can. They have to look at themselves and know they played a Top 25 team straight up and made some plays of their own. You can lose but still improve off your first game and put that behind you. I think Nevada will feel good if they come out of this game believing like the season is on the right track.