RENO — Kyle Van Noy can’t wait to put on a show for his friends and family back home in Reno this weekend.
“I’m excited to be going home,” said the BYU Cougars linebacker, a 2009 McQueen High graduate. “I don’t get to go there very often, so it will be exciting to be able to play football in front of my family again.”
The Cougars (7-4) will take on the Nevada Wolf Pack (4-7) at Mackay Stadium on Saturday afternoon (12:05 p.m.) in the regular-season finale for both teams. BYU has already accepted an invitation to play in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl on Dec. 27 in San Francisco’s AT&T Park. The Wolf Pack’s season will end short of a bowl game for the first time since 2004.
Van Noy, one of the top linebackers in the nation, is hoping for a homecoming party this Saturday.
“It would mean a lot for me to have a big game back home in Reno because of all the hard work and time I have put in since I have been there,” the 6-foot-3, 245-pound senior said. “It would be awesome.”
The Cougars, now in their third season as a Football Bowl Subdivision independent, are coming off a 23-13 loss at Notre Dame last week. The former Mountain West Conference member has beaten two current Mountain West teams (Boise State and Utah State) already this season.
“I think you’ll see a different defense and offense this weekend against Nevada,” said Van Noy, who is a finalist for the prestigious Lombardi, Butkus and Bednarik awards this season. “We’re going to have more fun. Guys on the team have been too uptight lately. I think we’ll play with more fun and enthusiasm.”
Van Noy, who helped McQueen win the 2008 Nevada state title in 2008 at Mackay Stadium, has 58 tackles (15 for a loss) this season with four sacks and two interceptions. He is fourth in the nation among active players with 25 career solo sacks.
“He’s a very skilled player,” Wolf Pack head coach Brian Polian said. “He makes special plays as an athlete.”
“He’s a great player,” said Wolf Pack offensive tackle Joel Bitonio, who will be one of 17 seniors honored Saturday before their final college game. “He runs around well and has a knack for making big plays when his team needs them the most.”
Van Noy stepped into the national spotlight last season after returning a fumble and an interception for a touchdown, as well as blocking a punt in the Cougars’ Poinsettia Bowl victory over San Diego State. He was then projected to be an early-round pick in the NFL draft last spring but decided to return to school for his senior year.
“Kyle has probably had more attention and praise and more spotlight than any other player,” BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “I can’t say in BYU history but he would have to be top five. For that to happen to a young person and then to stay grounded, stable, consistent and continue to grow and learn and remain teachable along the way, it’s quite a challenge.”
Finishing a disappointing season against the Cougars is also quite a challenge for the Wolf Pack, Polian said.
“We have our work cut out for us,” the rookie head coach said.
The Wolf Pack is coming off a 38-16 victory over San Jose State two weeks ago and would like nothing better than to finish on a high note.
“It is important to me that we go out and compete our tails off,” Polian said. “It is important that we play the best game that we can play.”
The Cougars feature quarterback Taysom Hill, who is the first player in BYU history to rush for at least 1,000 yards and pass for at least 2,000 yards in the same season. Hill, a 6-2, 221-pound sophomore, has rushed for 1,057 yards and passed for 2,547 yards. His favorite target, wide receiver Cody Hoffman, is BYU’s all-time leader in catches (246), receiving yards (3,431) and receiving touchdowns (33).
It is BYU’s ground game, though, that worries the Wolf Pack the most. The Cougars are 13th in the nation in rushing offense at 263.7 yards a game thanks to Hill and running back Jamaal Williams (983 yards). Williams needs 17 yards on Saturday to give BYU its first 1,000-yard rushing duo in the same season in school history.
The Wolf Pack is 116th in the nation (out of 123 teams) in rushing defense, allowing 246.2 yards a game.
“This game a matchup concern for us,” Polian said. “We haven’t been great stopping the run. You know, this game is not about deception. They are just going to come at us downhill. We’ll have to bow our necks and go fight.”
“We have to play gap-sound football and not let him (Hill) escape,” Wolf Pack defensive tackle Jack Reynoso said. “He can just take off and get 30 yards like it’s nothing.”
Hill and running back Paul Lasike both had 101 yards rushing against Notre Dame. Lasike had just 234 yards going into the game.
“(Hill) is a great runner for a quarterback,” Polian said. “He’s an exciting player. A lot of the stuff he does on the ground is not designed. He’ll take a five-step drop and look to pass, not like what he sees and then just take off.”
The Cougars’ defense allows just 21.2 points a game and is led by an aggressive linebacker group led by Van Noy and Uani Unga. Unga had 19 tackles against Notre Dame and has 125 on the year.
“Their linebackers are the strength of their team,” Wolf Pack wide receiver Brandon Wimberly said.
The Cougars use a 3-4 defense. Unga and Van Noy are joined by Alan Fua and Tyler Beck at linebacker. None of the four weighs more than Van Noy’s 245 pounds. The Cougars defensive line features tackle Eathyn Manumaleuna (6-2, 305 pounds) and quick ends Bronson Kaufusi (6-7, 282) and Remington Peck (6-4, 250).
“Nevada is similar to us on offense,” Van Noy said. “They have a lot of confusion, a lot of motion, their quarterback is very athletic and they get their playmakers in space. They can put up points in a hurry. But we have a good game plan for them.”
The Wolf Pack has won its last two games against BYU, winning 27-13 in 2010 in Provo, Utah with quarterback Colin Kaepernick and 31-28 in 2002 at Mackay Stadium with quarterback Zack Threadgill. Threadgill passed for 410 yards against the Cougars 11 years ago.
The Wolf Pack, though, has won its final game of the season just four times in the last 23 seasons (starting in 1990). They are 3-8 during that time when the season has ended in a bowl game, 0-2 when it ended in the Division I-AA playoffs and 1-9 when it ended in the regular season.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to compete and send the seniors off right,” Bitonio said.
Polian doesn’t want his team to get caught up in all the Senior Day hype.
“We can’t get overly emotional about that,” said Polian, who is hoping to avoid becoming the first Pack coach to win fewer than five games in a season since Chris Tormey in 2001 (3-8). “If we try to go on emotion alone, it’s going to be a very long day for us.”