Here’s a look ahead to the University at Buffalo’s opponent on Saturday – the University of Nevada. We exchanged notes with Reno Gazette-Journal beat writer Chris Murray on the Wolf Pack. Here are his answers to our four questions. We’ll have more preview information on Friday and Saturday at www.buffalonews.com. Murray's preview stories can be found at @MurrayRGJ and http://www.rgj.com/sports/
1. Brian Polian got Nevada back to a bowl game last season. What is the general perception in Nevada on what kind of job he's doing?
Most fans are taking a wait-and-see approach as Polian inherited some issues in his first year at Nevada, leading to a 4-8 season in his debut, before improving to 7-6 last year. Still, both seasons were a bit of a disappointment and with four-year starting quarterback Cody Fajardo, who spent training camp with the Raiders, graduated, this is truly Polian's team. This season will show us where the program is headed under Polian as half of Nevada's 2015 starters were recruited by him and his staff. Polian's been good in the community and his team has been great in the classroom (a team GPA of 3.053, the highest in the NCAA, last spring), but he's also had some sideline blowups (and was fined $10,000 by Nevada for getting two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against Arizona earlier this month) as well as Nevada laying some dud games during his tenure. The Mountain West is wide open this season (the conference is 2-21 against FBS foes in non-conference play this year), so the Wolf Pack should be able to compete for a divisional and potentially a conference title. If it doesn't, Polian will start to feel the heat a little.
2. How is new QB Tyler Stewart doing? How would you describe his style and strengths?
Stewart has been better than expected as he replaces Fajardo and Colin Kaepernick, the only two quarterbacks in NCAA history to surpass 9,000 passing yards and 3,000 rushing yards in a career. Stewart isn't the runner that Fajardo and Kaepernick were, but he has great size (6-4) and a huge arm. He is as dedicated as they come, with offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich, who starred at Hawaii himself, saying Stewart works harder in the film room than any quarterback he's been around. Stewart also will take a pounding and keep getting up, as evidenced by the beating he took against Texas A&M last week and against Florida State in 2013 when the Seminoles were the national champions (Stewart was pressed into action that game as a freshman after Nevada's top two quarterbacks were hurt). Stewart is a capable runner and will get 5-10 carries per game in the read-option, but his strength is his arm. He throws a great deep ball and is pretty accurate. He's done a nice job of limiting mistakes and has held his own against Arizona and Texas A&M, two top-20 teams.
3. Buffalo's defense has played better than expected. What would you say is the best way to contain the Nevada offense?
Like Buffalo, Nevada wants to establish the run. The Wolf Pack has run the ball on nearly 60 percent of its plays and has two good running backs in Don Jackson and James Butler, who both have had 100-yard games this season. Buffalo needs to load up and stop the run and with Stewart not being the threat to take off and run for 40- and 50-yard gains, it makes sense to key on the running backs in the read-option Pistol and make Stewart beat you with his legs. Nevada's best wide receiver is 6-foot-5 Hasaan Henderson, a converted cornerback who has great ball skills. He's the only difference-making play-makers Nevada has in the receiving crops. The Wolf Pack offensive line is young and has been better in the run game than in pass protection. If Buffalo can limit Nevada to around four yards per carry, it has a great chance of slowing down the Wolf Pack's offense and holding the team below 25 points. Under Polian, Nevada is 10-2 when it out-rushing its opponent and 2-14 when being out-rushed, so it really comes down to the run game.
4. How good is the Nevada front seven? How stout are they against the run? And do you expect them to dominate vs. Buffalo?
It's an excellent pass-rushing group but has struggled against the run over the years, including this season. Defensive ends Ian Seau, nephew of Junior, and Lenny Jones are above-average pass-rushers. Defensive tackle Rykeem Yates has had spurts when he's been unstoppable. But Nevada is allowing 5.7 yards per rush this season, so rushing the passer doesn't mean much when teams are in third-and-short all game. The caveat here is Nevada's schedule as it's played Arizona and Texas A&M, two explosive offenses, so it's hard to tell how much the level of opponent has increased that rushing figure. Nevada's front seven includes six seniors and five players who have been three-year starters, so it's an experienced group (the secondary, especially the cornerbacks, are the real weakness). If Nevada is able to stop the run and get some three-and-longs, I expect it to have a big day. But it all comes down to that run defense.