Prister’s Preview: Nevada @ Notre Dame

Former Irish assistant coach Brian Polian brings his Wolf Pack (1-0) to Notre Dame Stadium Saturday. Irish shoot for seventh straight home victory after 6-0 mark in 2015.

INSIDE NEVADA-NOTRE DAME

Who: Nevada (1-0) @ No. 18 Notre Dame (0-1)
Where: Notre Dame Stadium (80,795); Notre Dame, Ind.
When: Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016; 3:30 p.m. ET (NBC)
Nevada head coach: Brian Polian
2016 record: 1-0
2015 record: 7-6
Last meeting: 2009—Notre Dame 35, Nevada 0
Series record: Notre Dame 1-0

NEVADA FIRST-RATE

Overall ND/opponent rank: 11th
Rank by position: QB (7th), RB (8th), WR/TE (5th), OL (9th), DL (10th), LB (13th), DB (11th), ST (7th), C (12th)

2016 SEASON REVIEW

The Wolf Pack squeezed out a 30-27 overtime victory over FCS Cal Poly, winners of four games in ’15. Nevada led by double-digits throughout most of the second and third quarters before the Mustangs rallied to send the game into overtime.

Nevada struggled mightily with the Mustangs’ triple-option attack, which led to a 36:09-23:51 time of possession disadvantage and an 83-56 play disparity. Cal Poly also out-gained Nevada, 445-363.

The Wolf Pack were led by QB Tyler Stewart (17-of-23, 189 yards, 2 TDs, 0 int.) and RB James Butler (21-123, 2 TDs). Nevada’s receiving corps excelled with Jerico Richardson and 6-foot-4 Wyatt Demps each snagging a TD pass, the latter of which was a spectacular, leaping, one-handed grab.

KELLY’S CALL

“We came back from a 17-point deficit (vs. Texas) and put ourselves in a position to win the game. Now it’s about finishing, which is not something that we did well. We competed. We played hard. We put ourselves in a position. (But) this game is about all three phases and all three phases had a chance to impact the game late. The message to the team was about closing and finishing.”

IRISH ADVANTAGE

• Notre Dame rushing attack: The Wolf Pack allowed 191.4 yards rushing per game in 2015 with seven of 13 opponents cracking the 200-yard mark. In last week’s season-opener vs. FCS Cal Poly, the Mustangs rushed for 383 yards on 71 attempts (5.4-yard average).

The Irish rushed for 206 yards on 46 carries last week against Texas, led by Tarean Folston’s 88 yards on 18 carries (4.9). Notre Dame averaged 207.6 yards per game on the ground in ’15.

With only one starter returning along the Nevada defensive front seven, this should be an all-you-can-eat buffet for the Irish ground game against an undersized defensive front.

• DeShone Kizer: Kizer proved on a weekly basis in 2015 and again in the ’16 season-opener against Texas that he is control of the Irish offense and can produce through the air and on the ground. Kizer completed 15-of-24 passes for 215 yards and five touchdowns against Texas. He also rushed for 77 yards, including a 29-yard touchdown.

Nevada’s defense should be no match for Kizer’s play-making ability and coverage recognition, although the Wolf Pack return a solid, productive secondary (see Irish Concerns below).

Notre Dame Stadium success: The Irish have built a home-field advantage under Brian Kelly since losing five of his first 13 games in Notre Dame Stadium. Over the last four seasons, the Irish are 21-3 at home with the only losses coming against Oklahoma in 2013, and Northwestern and Louisville in 2014 when Notre Dame’s defense was depleted due to injury.

IRISH CONCERNS

Appropriate scheme: In light of Notre Dame’s decision to run a three-down lineman front with predominately nickel personnel on the back end against Texas, there are no certainties as to what approach Irish DC Brian VanGorder will choose against Nevada, although several Irish defenders hinted at a return to base defense.

The Irish must stem a defensive slide over the last 22 games in which opponents have a) recorded 56 touchdown drives of 70 yards-plus and b) scored touchdowns on 71.2 percent of the red-zone penetrations (62-of-87).

Nevada ground game: The Wolf Pack are shooting for their third straight season of averaging better than 200 yards rushing per game with a 211-yard mark in ’15 and 205 in ’14. Last season, Nevada produced two 1,000-yard rushers – James Butler (1,342 yards, 10 TDs, 6.5) and Don Jackson (1,081 yards, 8 TDs, 4.7).

Jackson is gone, but Butler is back behind an offensive line that returns four starters. Butler is a shifty open-field runner who will challenge Notre Dame’s inconsistent tackling.

Nevada’s safety play: This is a quality, albeit youthful unit, which is the exception on the ’16 Wolf Pack defense, which is vastly inexperienced and undersized along the front seven. Sophomore strong safety Dameon Baber intercepted six passes a year ago as a freshman, earning him 2nd-team all-MWC honors. His running mate at safety, sophomore Asauni Rufus, led the team as a rookie with 105 tackles.

Kicker Brent Zuzo: Although he missed from 38 yards out last week against Cal Poly, Zuzo converted all 17 of his field-goal attempts inside of 50 yards in 2015.

NEVADA @ NOTRE DAME PREVIEW

Nevada is the perfect opponent for Notre Dame this week following a disappointing season-opening loss at Texas Sunday night.

The Wolf Pack are a formidable opponent with their veteran offensive line and running back James Butler, who will challenge a Notre Dame defense that was vulnerable to the Longhorns’ power rushing attack.

Former Notre Dame assistant Brian Polian has a team with other assets that will force the Irish to play well in their home-opener.

The Wolf Pack secondary, led by their safeties, have play-making, takeaway ability. On the other side of the ball, quarterback Tyler Stewart is one of the few quarterbacks on the ’16 Irish schedule with playing experience. The receiving corps is relatively undistinguished but has size and showed play-making ability last week against Cal Poly.

On the flip side, Nevada is vulnerable enough for the Irish to put up 50 points and 500 yards against the Wolf Pack. They’re young and small in the trenches with only one starter among the front seven -- tackle Salesa Faraimo – back from the 2015 team that allowed a majority of its opponents to rush for more than 200 yards. A fired up Irish offensive line will have plenty of motivation and enough of a physical advantage to spark another offensive outburst.

Nevada, which has participated in bowl games each of the last two years, is good enough to catch Notre Dame’s attention – particularly after a loss – but susceptible enough for a DeShone Kizer-led attack to steamroll the Wolf Pack over the course of 60 minutes.

The issue of the starting quarterback was put to rest by Kizer’s five touchdown passes and one rushing touchdown in a brilliant display on the road against Texas. But serious questions remain with the Irish defense that had the whole pre-season to prepare for the Longhorns’ power attack and then was aligned with personnel to contain a pass-first approach. The Longhorns ultimately succeeded in both aspects.

Nevada has enough offensive talent to put 20-some points on the board against Notre Dame, but it shouldn’t be nearly enough for what Kizer and Co. are capable of doing to the Wolf Pack stop unit.

One aspect of this game hidden in the pre-game coverage is the motivation Polian – a fiery, contentious, cantankerous personality – has in his return to Notre Dame Stadium, where he last instructed Notre Dame’s special teams in Charlie Weis’ home finale loss to Connecticut in 2009.

Polian interviewed for a spot on Brian Kelly’s staff in 2010, but was rebuffed, prompting Polian to seek his revenge with Stanford in 2010-11 as special teams coach. The Cardinal won both of those games against the Irish, and Polian moved to Texas A&M for a season before landing the head-coaching job at Nevada in 2013.

With the motivation of a season-opening loss, the home opener and an opponent that is 1-5 vs. Power 5 conference teams under Polian – the lone win was a 2014 home victory over three-win Washington State – Notre Dame has a chance to right the ship before hosting perennial physical powerhouse Michigan State under the lights.

Too much Notre Dame offense determines the outcome fairly early in this clash against a middle-of-the-pack Mountain West Conference foe.

Pointspread: Notre Dame by 28; over-under 60½
Prister’s Prediction: Notre Dame 51, Nevada 17
Season Record: Straight-up 0-1, vs. points 1-0, over/under 0-1


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