Nevada Run Offense vs. Notre Dame Run Defense
Much has been made of quarterback #10 Colin Kaepernick's running ability and the 1298 rushing yards he accumulated in 2008. But while Kaepernick led the team in rushing touchdowns, he was only second on the team in yards to running back #34 Vai Taua.
Kaepernick and Taua run a two-man option rushing attack out of Nevada's pistol formation. Last year, Taua averaged 18 carries and 117 yards per game, while Kaepernick added 11 carries and 98 yards per game (sacks excluded).
The pistol is a one-back formation, and in fact Nevada does not list any fullbacks on its roster. Also, don't confuse the pistol with the spread attacks run at places like Florida or Missouri.
While the Wolf Pack will ocassionally hand the ball off to one of its three wideouts, receiver runs are not a primary part of its game. Last year, no Nevada wide receiver had more than seven rushes on the season.
Notre Dame's front seven returns only three starters this season. However, maybe that's a good thing, as the Irish run defense gave up 134 yards per game in 2008.
The line and linebackers are an exciting group of players, each with an interesting story to tell.
Brian Smith and Kerry Neal are now the steady leaders of the group. Ethan Johnson and Darius Fleming return after breakout freshman campaigns. Ian Williams and Toryan Smith are out for redemption. Kapron Lewis-Moore, Steve Filer, and Manti Te'o are itching to make an impact in their college debuts.
Defending the option calls for discipline on the outside and a good push on the inside. That will take patience from Lewis-Moore and converted defensive end Fleming. It will also be an excellent chance for Johnson to prove the move from end to defensive tackle was wise, and for Williams and Toryan Smith that they belong with the first team.
The option will also require run support from the safeties, and neither Kyle McCarthy nor Harrison Smith are afraid to mix it up in the box. How else would McCarthy lead the team in tackles in 2008 and Smith volunteer to play outside linebacker?
Notre Dame Run Offense vs. Nevada Run Defense
Armando Allen is the number one back outright this year, and now it's his job to prove he earned that right. Allen averaged 10 carries per game and 4.4 yards per carry in 2008—numbers that Irish fans both hope will improve in 2009.
Backing up Allen will be sophomore Jonas Gray, who averaged 4.3 yards per carry in limited playing time last year, but who also had fumble trouble in his introduction to college ball. Behind Allen and Gray is Robert Hughes, who has fallen out of his coach's good graces for playing like a small back despite weighing in at 234 lbs.
James Aldridge has been moved to fullback, and it will be interesting to see how he is used this season. The fullback has not seen many touches in Notre Dame's offense these past few years, but that may simply be due to the fact that the Irish haven't had an offensive threat at that position.
Also, if Gray and Hughes falter early this year, don't be surprised to see Aldridge back in at tailback when Allen comes out of the game.
Now is the time for the Irish to improve their mediocre run game. Depth and experience are no longer issues at running back or along the offensive line, so if the talent is there, it's time for it to shine.
Nevada's front seven features three seniors and two juniors, and its defense as a whole held opponents to 3.1 yards per carry and 88 yards per game in 2008. Those are fairly impressive numbers, no matter who you're facing.
The Wolf Pack returns three players who had double-digit tackles for a loss in 2008. Most notable is sophomore SAM linebacker #52 James-Michael Johnson, who registered 12.5 TFL in his freshman campaign. Johnson will look to lead Nevada's linebacking corps, as he is the lone returning starter in that unit.
Nevada Pass Offense vs. Notre Dame Pass Defense
For all that is made of Kaepernick's running ability, his passing also deserves some recognition. A 54.3 percent completion rate and 219 yards per game by themselves won't win a Heisman Trophy, but a 22 to seven touchdown-to-interception ratio is certainly impressive. On average in 2008, Kaepernick completed 16 of 29 passes per game.
Nevada primarily utilizes three wideouts, but of its top three receivers in 2008, only one returns in 2009.
Number 14 Chris Wellington averaged three catches and 48.6 yards per game while also grabbing six touchdowns on the year. Number 82 Tray Session only caught one pass in 2008, while #18 Brandon Wimberly will make his collegiate debut after redshirting last year.
Running back Taua averaged two catches and 18.7 yards per game in 2008, while tight end #85 Virgil Green—a returning starter—averaged one catch and 12.6 yards. In otherwords, Nevada will go to checkdown options on ocassion, but the three wide receivers are Kaepernick's main targets.
This season, Notre Dame will march out its most talented secondary in years.
Robert Blanton gets the nod at one starting cornerback position, while the other will be a gametime decision between Raeshon McNeil and Darrin Walls. The indecision there comes from limited practice time for Walls due to a mild hamstring injury, but either player can fill the role admirably, as can any of their backups.
As mentioned above, both safeties are more than willing to help in run support, but they can't get greedy, or else Nevada will burn them over the top.
It remains to be seen how effective Notre Dame's pass rush will be or how much pressure they'll try to get on Kaepernick. With an inexperienced front, the Irish may instead try to contain the run and let the defensive backs worry about the passing game.
Notre Dame Pass Offense vs. Nevada Pass Defense
When Jimmy Clausen let go of the ball in 2008, it didn't hit the ground much. Clausen completed 60.9 percent of his passes last year (64.8 percent if you count his 17 interceptions).
So which quarterback will the Irish get this year? The mid-November Clausen who forced passes in triple coverage or the December version, who threw a "perfect game" in the Hawaii Bowl? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.
Clausen's 2008 receivers can be divided into three tiers: those who caught four or more passes per game (Golden Tate, Allen, Michael Floyd), those who caught three per game (David Grimes), and those who caught one to two passes per game (Kyle Rudolph, Duval Kamara, Hughes, Robby Parris).
Two questions arise from this list. One: Who will move up to Grimes' tier? Rudolph, Kamara, and Parris are obvious choices, but don't count out any of the freshman, either.
Two: Who besides Allen will catch passes out of the backfield? Aldridge has only 11 career receptions, and Jonas Gray was not thrown to last year. Will one of them see more screens come their way in 2009 or will Hughes get to see the field just for this purpose?
The stars of Nevada's defense are its ends. Number 99 Kevin Basped had 18.5 TFL, 10 sacks, and three forced fumbles last year, while #55 Dontay Moch had 17.5, 11.5, and four. Both are back to lead a veteran defensive line this year.
It's a good thing Nevada has such great pass rushers, because when the opposing quarterback did get the ball off, the results weren't pretty. The Wolf Pack gave up 311 passing yards per game in 2008.
Its top two tacklers were both defensive backs, and only one of those two—free safety #49 Jonathon Amaya—returns this year. Amaya also led the Wolf Pack with four interceptions in 2008, followed by 2009's strong safety #25 Mo Harvey with three.
To prey on Nevada's defensive weaknesses, the Irish should employ a steady diet of screens (and draws) and deep passes. Fortunately, these are things the Irish excelled at in 2008. Notre Dame can also choose to spread Nevada's secondary thin with its bevy of talented receivers or aid Clausen and the line by keeping tight ends in to protect against the pass rush.
Nevada's placekicker is junior college transfer #46 Ricky Drake. Notre Dame's placekicker is freshman Nick Tausch, who won the job impressively in fall practice. Stats are not available for either player.
Number 48 Brad Langley returns as Nevada's punter. In 2008, he averaged 44.0 yards per punt with a long of 77. How do mid-majors continue to land strong legs like this? Or is it just the thin mountain air and turf fields? Last season, the Wolf Pack punt coverage team gave up 9.2 yards per return, a very respectable number.
Notre Dame returns punter Eric Maust as a scholarship player after averaging 41.1 yards per punt in 2008 with a long of 54. Last year, the Irish punt coverage team was outstanding, holding opponents to just six yards per punt return.
Nevada's kick returners are slated to be a combination of #24 Brandon Fragger, #5 Mike Ball, and Brandon Wimberley. Of the trio, only Fragger returned kicks in 2008, averaging 18.2 yards with a long of 26.
Nick Tausch will also kick off for the Irish. He has been praised not for his ability to boot the ball out of the endzone, but for his hang time, which allows Notre Dame's fantastic kick coverage team a chance to get down the field. Last year, that kick coverage team gave up just 16.5 yards per return.
Notre Dame's choices for kick returner may be a bit of a surprise. Aldridge and freshman halfback Theo Riddick start the year at that position. Last year, Aldridge returned one kick for 15 yards.
Behind Aldridge and Riddick on the depth chart are freshman Shaquelle Evans and senior Barry Gallup.
Nevada's kickoff specialist will be either Ricky Drake or sophomore #39 Nick Rhodes. Like Drake, Rhodes has yet to see field action for the Wolf Pack. In 2008, Nevada's kickoff coverage was pedestrian, giving up 26.1 yards per return.
The Wolf Pack have three players vying for punt return duty: #5 Thaddeus Brown, Taua, and #24 Khalid Wooten. None of the three returned punts in 2008.
Returning punts for the Irish will be either Tate or Allen. Tate averaged 8.3 yards per return in 2008, with a long of 42. Allen had an average of 9.4 with a long of just 22, but he did add a 96-yard kickoff return in the Hawaii Bowl.
Notre Dame Players to Watch
Clausen, Allen, Toryan Smith, Lewis-Moore, Tausch, and Riddick.
Notre Dame 38, Nevada 24.