After three full game film reviews of Saturday's visitors (vs. UNLV, Fresno State and Boise State) and about 50 too many of Saturday's hosts over the last four months, I think I've seen enough to form an opinion regarding the keys to Saturday's contest vs. Nevada. Then again, I'm the guy that predicted ND would start 8-1 this season with the loss coming to an unnamed team in September and not to USC…so proceed at your own risk.
Below are nine matchups that will help to determine tomorrow's outcome:
Irish Tacklers vs. Wolf Pack QB Colin Kaepernick
While the key to Nevada's consistent offensive success lies in its offensive line's ability to block in space (and at the second level), there's no doubt that the junior Kaepernick is the straw that stirs the drink for the Wolf Pack running attack. Kaepernick stresses defenses on the perimeter both with his straight line speed (at 6'6" the long-strider covers yardage in a hurry) and his ability to make defenders miss in space.
Boise State attacked Kaepernick last season with what the Broncos coaching staff referred to as "The QB Guy." In other words, a different player (safety or linebacker) was assigned to spy on the talented ball-handler on each play (Kaepernick was held to 70 yards on 16 carries vs. the Broncos).
Conversely, both UNLV and Fresno State stuck to fundamental assignment defense, which of course has its merits. However, an obvious flaw in both the Running Rebels' and Bulldogs' defensive attack was the decided lack of actual fundamentals as they allowed Kaepernick 35 carries for 358 yards and five touchdowns (not a misprint) in the two contests. (In fact, it appeared UNLV used the middle of the end zone as their best defense vs. Kaepernick).
Regardless of the scheme employed by Coach Tenuta and Coach Brown on Saturday, the No. 1 key to containing Kaepernick is tackling the quarterback in space. Look for SS Kyle McCarthy, WLB Brian Smith, FS Harrison Smith, and possibly nickel safety Sergio Brown to post big tackle totals Saturday. The key to those tackle totals, of course, is limiting Kaepernick's forays downfield.
As well, athletic Irish pass rushers Kerry Neal, Darius Fleming, and Steve Filer will have shots at Kaepernick as he moves outside the pocket on 2nd or 3rd and long…its up to those athletes to "finish the drill" rather than simply flush the dangerous runner into open space where he can buy time while receivers break open late downfield.
Wolf Pack redshirt freshman weak(side) guard Chris Barker or strong guard John Bender vs. Irish defensive tackles Ethan Johnson and Hafis Williams
Barker's baptism to the college game will likely occur as part of a consistent double-team effort (with center Kenneth Ackerman) vs. Irish nose tackle Ian Williams. That would leave Bender, a massive 6'8" 325-pound interior protector, to face ND's DT tandem of young pups Johnson and Hafis Williams.
Johnson will win his fair share of individual battles against either Wolf Pack guard. It's up to first-time contributor Hafis Williams to hold his own vs. the veteran Bender and to outplay classmate and fellow greenhorn Chris Barker. Williams is at a mild disadvantage in his assimilation to the college game as the Nevada offensive line excels in unison off the ball - and the Wolf Pack's disciplined running game will serve pose a major challenge to Williams, especially in his first career defensive series.
Nevada's two tight end sets vs. SLB Darius Fleming and WLB Brian Smith
The Wolf Pack return two receivers with college receptions to their credit: sophomore Tray Session (one catch for six yards) and junior Chris Wellington (42-632-6 TD). As Irish head coach Charlie Weis observed in Tuesday's press conference, "Most teams have one or two (tight ends) that they like…well they (Nevada) have four of them." Those two factors suggest multiple tight end sets in Saturday's opener (the Wolf Pack relied heavily on three-receiver sets in '08 but boasted a trio of talented wideouts on the roster).
If you're looking for a key to stopping Kaepernick off tackle and 1,500+-yard running back Vai Taua on downhill carries, simply watch the play of Wolf Pack tight end Virgil Green in tandem with Kevin Bohr/Talaiasi Puloka: if the duo is able to contain Fleming and Smith on the edges it will be a long day for the Irish run defense.
Toryan Smith vs. Vai Taua
There were two camps of Irish fans in August regarding the team's linebacker situation: those that were adamant in their preference for freshman sensation Manti Te'o to start the season-opener, and those that ever-so-slightly leaned toward relying on the services senior run-stuffer Toryan Smith. I fell in the latter camp, solely due to the presence of Taua as an inside runner in Game One.
Smith's strength as a football player is his ability to plug the run – to stick to his assignment, shed the block of an interior lineman, and make a play on the ball carrier. Taua's a disciplined runner – a bowling ball in shoulder pads and Smith's ability to limit his damage at the second level will play a key role in keeping the Irish defense out of 2nd or 3rd-and-short situations.
Golden Tate vs. Man Coverage
In my aforementioned three Wolf Pack game reviews, there weren't many defensive snaps in which a Nevada pass rusher didn't create at least a modicum of distress for the opposing quarterbacks. Junior defensive ends Kevin Basped and Dontay Moch don't stay blocked long, and its not a matter of "if" but "when" one of the duo will approach Clausen's comfort zone on each pass attempt tomorrow.
But the back line of the Wolf Pack defense isn't on par with the talent level of its pass rushers. Nevada prefers man coverage on the outside, leaving its corners on an island vs. opposing receivers. If you watched Notre Dame junior receiver Golden Tate play last season you can probably move onto the next point of emphasis in this list…
Michael Floyd vs. Man Coverage
Ditto. If Nevada insists on consistent man coverage vs. Tate and Michael Floyd the Irish will score 40 without batting an eye. Notre Dame ran precious few crossing routes with Floyd last season (just 16 receptions inside the hash marks as a freshman). Look for Floyd to dominate the soft middle tomorrow.
Kyle Rudolph and the Abuse of Nevada's ‘backers
More good news for Irish fans: Nevada's linebacker corps, both the returners ready to take the field Saturday and those who've moved on from the program, struggled in underneath coverage last season.
Legendary coach and quarterback guru Sid Gillman once mused: "If you control the hash marks with the tight end you control the whole field."
Who am I to question Sid Gillman? Look for Rudolph to dominate Nevada SAM ‘backer James-Michael Johnson down the seams, forcing the Wolf Pack to commit solid safety Jonathon Amaya or unproven senior Mo Harvey to contend with the Irish sophomore. Likewise, UNLV had success splitting its tight ends wide vs. the Wolf Pack as Nevada countered with man-to-man coverage by linebackers Johnson and Brandon Marshall. A similar scenario would greatly favor the Irish passing game, including backup tight end Mike Ragone, and a natural downfield receiver at tight end.
The Irish Kick Return Game vs. Porous Kick Coverage
Nevada faced three BCS Conference teams last season: Texas Tech, Missouri, and Maryland. In those three contests the Wolf Pack suffered a punt, kick, and interception return touchdown. Their kick coverage unit ranked 115th out of 119 FBS teams allowing more than 26 yards per return (Notre Dame's kick coverage group limited opponents to a national-best 16.4 yards per return). Nevada's 62nd ranked punt coverage unit allowed two additional touchdowns.
The Irish should hold a significant advantage in terms of "hidden yardage" vs. the Wolf Pack's sloppy coverage units.
Eric Olsen vs. Nate Agaiava; Sam Young, Paul Duncan, and Matt Romine vs. Kevin Basped and Dontay Moch
If you followed IrishEyes over the summer months you likely read the pre-camp unit preview of the Irish offensive line. Well that elephant is still in the room.
We're told Olsen will be a major upgrade at center. We're told Paul Duncan was the surprise of the spring and Romine the subsequent star of August. We're told Sam Young is the No. 4-rated NFL-Draft eligible tackle prospect by draft guru Mel Kiper, Jr. And we want to believe that new offensive line coach Frank Verducci has instilled a much-needed dose of toughness and competition along the Irish front wall.
We've been told a lot of things over the last 36 Irish football Saturdays, since the day LaMarr Woodley and the Michigan front seven exposed the Irish offensive line. If you're looking for a game day development that would allow Nevada to upset Notre Dame, look no further than the matchups listed in the Sub-Head above.
Tomorrow offers a fresh start: one this group sorely needs.