Win could change Nevada's future

The time for worn-out cliches, bottled-up emotions and muted passions is over for the Nevada Wolf Pack.

Wolf Pack head coach Chris Ault wants his football team to seize the day.

"This is not any other game," said Ault, whose Wolf Pack will take on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium today (12:30 p.m., NBC-TV, 630-AM). "You are on the road. You happen to be at a place that is college football tradition, where it all started. This is a huge game."

The Wolf Pack will be the first Western Athletic Conference team to ever play at Notre Dame Stadium since the historic facility opened in 1930. Notre Dame is 3-0 in its rich 121-year history against WAC teams, all against Hawaii.

"Teams in the WAC do not get the opportunity to play at Notre Dame Stadium," said Ault, who will bring a 198-91-1 record into his 25th season as Pack head coach. "Maybe they don't want to. But I think this is a great opportunity and a thrill to go to a place with so much tradition."

Ault wants his team to soak in all of that tradition and let the emotions flow against the 23rd-ranked (Associated Press and USA Today Coach's Poll) Irish.

"You are not only on a national stage, you are on a world-wide stage," said Ault, whose team has also received votes in both the AP and USA Today polls. "There's going to be some excitement. You are going to have butterflies. But the bottom line is that somewhere all that has to clear, you have to come back to reality and you have to play football.

"That's the tough part. But I don't want kids to bottle it up. These are young guys. I want them excited. They're at Notre Dame Stadium. George Gipp, Knute Rockne, all those great things."

The Wolf Pack players have gotten the message.

"This is definitely the biggest game of my career," said Wolf Pack senior Luke Lippincott, who joined the program in 2004 as a redshirt freshman and will start at a receiver position against Notre Dame. "The first thing I said last year when I got hurt was, "I'll be back for Notre Dame.'

"It's a big deal for everyone."

Pack quarterback Colin Kaepernick added: "Everyone is excited to play at Notre Dame."

The Wolf Pack toured the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind., on Friday. Ault was elected to the Hall in 2002.

"It's a bowl game for them," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said this week.

Both teams are coming off 7-6 seasons. Notre Dame's 2008 season ended with an impressive 49-21 victory over Hawaii in the Sheraton Hawaii Bowl on Christmas Eve as quarterback Jimmy Clausen threw for 401 yards and five touchdowns. The Wolf Pack's 2008 season ended with a 42-35 loss to Maryland in the Roady's Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, Id., on Dec. 30.

The Irish return Clausen and 17 other starters from a year ago. The Wolf Pack returns 15 starters, including Kaepernick who became just the fifth quarterback in Division I-A history (now called Football Bowl Subdivision) to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in the same season.

Both Clausen and Kaepernick have been named to the watch lists for the Davey O'Brien, the Maxwell and the Manning awards.

"He's (Clausen) developed on and off the field the way I want him to develop," said Weis, who will start his fifth year (20-21 record) as Irish head coach. "Now he's got to go out and do it front of 80,000 people at home."

Weis is well aware of the gaudy numbers Kaepernick and the Pack offense (37.6 points a game) put up a year ago.

"The first thing is their running backs are very good," Weis said. "That always make the quarterback's job easier. If you sell out and stop those guys (the running backs), all of a sudden he (Kaepernick) is on the edge and can hurt you. He (Kaepernick) is a darn good player but it's not all him. In Coach Ault's scheme, if you don't stop the run, you'll be in trouble. If all you do is stop Kaepernick, they'll gash you inside."

Weis expects that the Irish defense will have its hands full.

"When you watch this team (Nevada) on tape, and watch them go up and down the field, that gets your attention," he said. "I think this team is pretty darn good. Against this team, if you don't do your job, you can get burned."

Ault said his priorities this off-season were fixing the Wolf Pack's defense (last against the pass in the nation a year ago) and special teams, as well as refining Kaepernick's pocket presence and accuracy.

"We have to establish a personality on defense," Ault said.

Much of that personality will likely start with junior defensive ends Dontay Moch and Kevin Basped.

"Anytime you have two guys coming off the edge like that, you are going to be dangerous in the pass rush," Weis said. "I know they want to simplify things on defense and that means turning things loose upfront (with Moch and Basped) and letting the secondary handle the coverage."

Weis hinted that he will allow Clausen to test the Wolf Pack's pass defense right away.

"We'll know relatively early in the game how they plan to fix that," Weis said.

The Wolf Pack, which will play in front of Notre Dame's 206th consecutive sell-out at Notre Dame Stadium (80,795 capacity), will be up against a ton of history when they take on the Irish.

Notre Dame is 70-8-3 in season-opening games at Notre Dame Stadium, 100-15-5 overall in all of its season openers. Just six visiting teams have gone to Notre Dame Stadium for the first time and won, the last being Florida State in 1981.

The Wolf Pack has not won a game on the road to open the season since winning at Eastern Washington in 1987 (40-26). From 1988 through last year, the Pack has opened 11 seasons on the road and lost all 11 games, losing at such high-profile places as Nebraska (2007), BYU (2001), Oregon State (1998), Oregon (2000, 1996) and Wisconsin (1993).

"Notre Dame is the epitome of college football," Ault said. "It is a real special opportunity. The nostalgia of Notre Dame and going there with all of their quality athletes is a real challenge. Notre Dame has all the bells and whistles you have to have.

"But when you open with a game like this, your personality and your character shows real quick. The most important thing in a game like this is how you handle adversity. When it rears its ugly head, how do you handle it?"

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