The first weekend of college football in 2016, although incredibly exciting, is not a fond memory for us Notre Dame Fighting Irish fans. The 50-47 double overtime loss to Texas was pretty devastating for a fan base excited about the prospect of another solid year, and the loss puts the Irish in a situation where they will need to win out, and probably receive plenty of help from other teams, to contend for a College Football Playoff spot.
So, to prepare you all for this weekend’s step in the right direction (well, at least we really hope so), I talked to Daniel Connolly of Mountain West Connection to get some vital information on this Nevada Wolf Pack team that will be facing off against ND at 3:30 pm ET this Saturday.
Arm yourselves with knowledge, people, and prepare yourselves for game two of this already tumultuous college football season by learning the key facts below.
1. James Butler is a damn good running back who will give Brian VanGorder’s defense plenty of trouble
Question I asked: I did some very cursory research on talented opposing players on ND's schedule and happened across Nevada’s star running back James Butler, who had an excellent year in 2015 and has gotten off to a great start this year. What do Irish fans need to know about him, and is he indeed the number one guy to watch on the Wolf Pack? How does a defense go about stopping him?
Daniel: James Butler is by far Nevada's biggest weapon. He's been a solid contributor ever since he stepped on campus as a true freshman. He wasn't projected to be the top running back last season, but he simply outperformed senior Don Jackson -- which was no easy task.
He's a fast, shifty runner that can break a big run at any time. If he can get through the line, he's pretty dangerous because of his ability to make defenders miss in space and can turn on the afterburners if he gets into the open field.
He isn't much of a power rusher either, so the best way to slow him down would be to clog up the holes along the line and keep him in the first level. Sound technique when tackling is key as well, otherwise he's more than capable of slipping out.
Pat Rick: Let me interject here and just say that, in my cursory research, I also found this great video where James Butler voices a fantastic and possibly controversial opinion on touchdowns after a nice run:
I’m a fan of this kid.
2. Nevada QB Tyler Stewart is solid, but the more he throws, the better for Notre Dame
Question I asked: Tell me about Tyler Stewart, whose numbers from the Wolf Pack's 30-27 win over Cal Poly indicate he's an efficient senior QB. The Notre Dame secondary looked mediocre at best against Texas (and at times downright terrible). What are Stewart's strengths, what receivers could give the secondary trouble, and how can the Irish defense get Stewart/Nevada off of their game, passing-wise?
Daniel: Tyler Stewart is a pretty solid but unspectacular option at QB. He probably won't put the team on his back and win the game by himself, but he most likely won't give the game away with a killer turnover.
I'm no expert on Notre Dame's secondary, but I'm sure facing Texas is a bigger challenge than the Wolf Pack passing attack. Having said that, Nevada can beat you through the air. Jerico Richardson is the team's top receiver but after him the distribution of passes was very spread out. It's still early, so the coaching staff is still trying to figure out who can be the most productive out there.
The best way for the Fighting Irish to slow the passing attack is to stop the running game. Last season, when Stewart had to attempt over 23 passes, Nevada was 2-5. When they have to rely on going through the air, the offense really struggles to move the ball.
3. The Wolf Pack defense has been completely overhauled since 2015 and stands to struggle a bit against the Irish
Question I asked: The Notre Dame offense ran for just over 200 yards against Texas, but there was an expectation for an even greater display of dominance. How does Nevada's front seven look, and how do you think they'll hold up against a big Irish line who is still trying to put it all together and dominate an opponent?
Daniel: Nevada's front seven was absolutely decimated by graduation, losing Ian Seau and Lenny Jones, their two top pass rushers, Rykeem Yates, their run-stuffer in the middle, and Jordan Dobrich, Matthew Lyons and Bryan Lane Jr., their top three linebackers. It's a full overhaul up front, and it's hard to tell really what they are after playing a triple-option attack in their first game.
It would be naive to think they won't have some struggles, but they'll need to limit those if they want to stay at least competitive in this game.
4. Nevada’s secondary is young and talented and won’t make things easy through the air for Kizer and Zaire
Question I asked: It sounds like Brian Kelly is still going to play both DeShone Kizer and Malik Zaire at QB against Nevada, despite Kizer's sparkling play and Zaire's disappointing performance. How do you see the Wolf Pack defense holding up against both those guys, especially in the secondary?
Daniel: I didn't have a chance to check out the Notre Dame vs Texas game, *ducks*, but I did see Twitter blowing up over DeShone Kizer's performance. However, both guys are going to be a handful for Nevada's defense.
The good thing for the Wolf Pack is their secondary is the strength of the defense. They're pretty young in most positions, but the players there are very talented. Asauni Rufus started as a true freshman, while the coaching staff decided to burn Dameon Baber's redshirt four games in and he turned out to be one of the best players on the field over the remainder of the season while playing free safety.
Baber is a natural ball-hawk, intercepting six passes in eight games. Both QBs will have to keep an eye on where he is on the field at all times.
5. Richardson’s playmaking, Baber’s deep coverage, and Faraimo’s pass rush will be key in Nevada hanging around in this game
My prompt: Give me three other players, besides Butler and Stewart, that the Wolfpack will need to play fantastic games against Notre Dame to pull off the upset.
Daniel: Jerico Richardson needs to torch the Notre Dame secondary and have a career day in South Bend for the offense to keep up with the Fighting Irish. Dameon Baber will have to lock down the deep part of the field, not letting anything deep that can go for a big play. An interception or two would help as well. Salesa Faraimo is the top replacement for Seau and Jones, so he'll need to keep pressure on the quarterbacks all game long.
Bonus: Nevada has some random fun facts to know - including information on some 49ers guy who played QB there in the late 2000s
My bonus question: Tell me anything else we need to know about Nevada football - anything else to know about certain players, coaches, the program, Nevada football traditions, etc.?
Daniel: Nevada has more fun facts than you'd expect. You know Colin Kaepernick?
I'm sure you haven't heard much from him recently, but he started at Nevada for four years from 2007-2010.
Head coach Brian Polian is the son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Bill Polian.
Pat Rick: Interjecting again, he is also the former special teams coordinator at Notre Dame (2005-2009), and additionally served as Charlie Weis’ defensive backs coach in 2005, linebackers coach in 2006, and inside linebackers coach in 2007.
Oh, and this amazing picture of him exists:
Now back to your regularly scheduled fun Nevada facts courtesy of Mr. Connolly.
Daniel: Marion Motley, one of the first African-Americans to play in the NFL, and also a HOFer, went to Nevada from 1941-1943.
The Pistol Offense was invented in 2004 by then-Nevada head coach Chris Ault, a style of offense still used by many college and pro teams.
There are two players in NCAA history to rush for 3,000 yards and throw for 9,000 yards: Colin Kaepernick and Cody Fajardo, both went to Nevada, and Fajardo was the heir to Kaepernick.
Pat Rick: Welp, I hope y’all learned something today, and are ready to see your Irish take on the Wolf Pack this Saturday!
Go Irish (beat Wolf Pack, suck it Wolf Pack, go Irish go)!