Nevada 101: Nothing little about this game

THE SEASON HAS barely begun but this much is clear: the Cougars aren't about to take any opponent lightly after the loss to Rutgers. Nevada didn't exactly blow out Southern Utah, but they are 1-0. A top flight quarterback gives the Wolf Pack the chance to compete with Connor Halliday in another nationally televised shootout.

Cougars (0-1) vs Wolf Pack (1-0)
AT A GLANCE
KICKOFF:
7:30 pm Pacific Time

WHERE:
McKay Stadium (30,000)

TELEVISION:
ESPN

RADIO:
The Cougar Sports Radio Network covers much of the West. Click here for listings.

THE LINE:
WSU by 3 ½

LAST MEETING:
WSU won 55-21in 2002

THE SERIES:
WSU is 2-0 in the series.

CF.C PREDICTION:
Cougs 45, Wolf Pack 29

THE WOLF PACK ON OFFENSE

Players to Know
Cody Fajardo, QB: Fajardo is essentially the Mountain West Conference's version of Johnny Manziel. The senior is one of the best dual threat quarterbacks in the country (the only current FBS player over 7,000 passing and 2,000 rushing yards in his career). He also rarely makes mistakes, completing 68 percent of his throws last year, and only three interceptions. But he hasn’t won, holding only a 15-16 career mark as a starter.
Don Jackson, RB: The 210-pound JC transfer made a solid debut with 110 rushing yards and a touchdown last week. He added one catch as well, but does not appear to be much of a major receiving threat.
Jerico Richardson, WR: The Wolfpack may have found a gem in Richardson. The sophomore was not a major contributor last season but exploded with 13 catches for 177-yards against Southern Utah.

Overview
The Wolfpack strive to run a balanced offense. In 2013 they ranked 51st in rushing and 45th in passing. But Nevada seemed to struggle converting yards into points, finishing 75th in scoring offense. Similar results were witnessed last week. Against Southern Utah, Nevada passed for 303 yards and ran for 244, but managed only 28 points on the scoreboard. Part of the problem appears to be a somewhat undersized offensive line (290-pound average) that has struggled to deliver consistent protection for Fajardo.

Strategy
The blueprint for beating the Cougars is becoming increasingly clear: run. In the their last eight wins, the Cougars have held their opponents to an average of 97 rushing yards. In their last eight losses, opponents averaged 246 rushing yards. Containing the ground game is absolutely essential, and it starts with Fajardo. He running ability gives the Wolfpack the chance to punish the Cougars on the ground, even on passing plays.

Key Statistic
The Mendoza line: 200 rushing yards: The Cougars have lost nine straight contests when giving up 200 rushing yards, but have won eight of their last nine games when surrendering less than 200 hashes.

THE WOLF PACK ON DEFENSE

Players to Know
Ian Seau, DE: A nephew of Hall of Famer Junior Seau. At 227-pounds, Seau is a pass rushing specialist, who managed a sack and two pass deflections in his first start last week.
Brock Hekking, DE: The senior has 18 career sacks and 26 tackles for loss.

Overview
Nevada is on their 16th defensive coordinator in 23 seasons. Scott Boone is the latest to try and bring a little intensity to the Wolf Pack's defense, a 4-3 scheme in 2014. Nevada struggled mightily last season, finishing ranked 117th in total defense. Against Southern Utah, the Wolfpack gave up 7.1 yards per rush attempt, and seemed to wear down as the game wore on despite coming away with a victory.

Strategy
Connor Halliday clearly had the offense humming last week. But you can expect Nevada to turn up the pressure on him with plenty of blitzing. The Wolf Pack defense is suspect, but their true weakness appears to be rush defense. WSU is not about to abandon the Air Raid, but what running plays they do employ should be more effective than last week. The big question here after nine combined carries from the ‘backs, will the Cougs try and run more and will they try and run more when inside the red zone?

Key Statistic
Allowed 5.3 yards per pass attempt: Nevada got eaten alive on the ground, but were fairly effective against Southern Utah's passing offense. It remains to be seen how much of this was merely the quality of the opponent.

THE WOLF PACK ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Kicker Brent Zuzo has not attempted a field goal this year, but was 14-of-17 last season.

FINAL THOUGHTS
-Nevada seems locked in a vicious coaching cycle. Three times Chris Ault has retired, and three times the Wolfpack have cascaded back into mediocrity. Bill Polian's 4-8 inaugural 2013 season didn't just break a string of eight bowl games, it broke a lot of alumni hearts as well.

-Several WSU coaches have Nevada ties. RBs coach Jim Mastro, linebacker coach Ken Wilson, graduate assistant Mike Bethea, head trainer Andy Mutnam and strength trainer Joe Loscalzo all spent multiple seasons in Reno.

-After an offseason of optimism based on the favorable schedule, WSU desperately needs a win over Nevada. A better showing on defense would go a long ways towards making that a reality.

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