The Nevada Wolf Pack is going to get a healthy dose of college football history, tradition and royalty this weekend.
“It is something every little kid thinks about,” said Wolf Pack offensive lineman Jeremy Macauley of the Pack’s game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish today (12:30 p.m., NBC) in South Bend, Ind. “It is going to be a cool experience; a cool moment.”
“It hasn’t really hit me yet,” tight end Jarred Gipson said this week. “When I get there I am going to try to soak it all in.”
Wolf Pack coach Brian Polian, who spent five (2005-09) of his formative years as an assistant coach at Notre Dame, knows exactly what his wide-eyed Wolf Pack will be up against in South Bend.
“The place is filled with legends, history and ghosts,” Polian said. “But the good thing is that we don’t have to worry about all of that. Tim Brown isn’t going to be playing against us.”
And neither will Joe Montana, Paul Hornung, Dave Casper, Joe Theisman or any of the other Irish legends.
“Only about 40 percent of our guys even knew who Tim Brown was,” Polian said.
Polian, who grew up as a Notre Dame fan, understands if his team will be a bit starstruck by all that’s Notre Dame football.
“In my opinion it is one of the great cathedrals in college football,” Polian said. “Notre Dame was my team. I had one of those satin Notre Dame Starter jackets as a kid. It is a fun place to play, a great experience for our guys. Notre Dame is kind of like the New York Yankees, kind of like the Dallas Cowboys, kind of like General Electric. Everybody knows them. I found out when I coached there that you can be anywhere at anytime and you can find a rabid Notre Dame fan. Who wouldn’t want to play in front of 80,000 fans? Who wouldn’t want to play in the shadow of Touchdown Jesus? You would be crazy if you didn’t.”
“If you are not excited about going to play at Notre Dame then something is wrong with you,” Macauley said.
Polian was a part of Charlie Weis’ staff at Notre Dame the last time the Pack ventured into Notre Dame Stadium. Jimmy Clausen passed for 315 yards and four touchdowns as the Irish beat the Wolf Pack and quarterback Colin Kaepernick 35-0 on Sept. 5, 2009. Irish fans filled historic Notre Dame Stadium that afternoon (80,795) and this Saturday is expected to be the Irish’s milestone 250th sellout in a row.
The game at Notre Dame in 2009 is the third largest crowd the Pack has played in front of in school history after Texas A&M (102,591 last year) and Nebraska (84,078) in 2007. The Wolf Pack has played before 70,000 or more fans five times in its history (Texas A&M, Nebraska, Notre Dame, 73,847 at Florida State in 2013 and 70,149 at Washington in 2003) and has won just one of those games (Washington).
The crowd or the stadium, Polian said, won’t beat the Wolf Pack on Saturday.
“A football field is a football field,” Polian said. “We played on the road in the SEC (Texas A&M). So it (Notre Dame) might be the same but it won’t be harder. Our guys hung in that game (a 44-27 loss at Texas A&M) and there’s no reason to believe that it won’t be the same (on Saturday).”
“We’ve done it before,” said Gipson, who has played at UCLA (60,562 fans), Florida State and Texas A&M in his Wolf Pack career. “Although we didn’t win (at Texas A&M) we stood toe to toe with them.”
Polian’s Wolf Pack teams have played in front of 10 crowds of 30,000 or more and have lost nine of those games. The only win was in front of 56,355 at BYU in 2014. Two of those losses even came at home, against Boise State (32,327 fans in 2014) and UNLV (32,521 in 2013).
“It’s just football,” Macauley said. “When it comes right down to it, it’s just Xs and Os and you have to line up and hit someone. That’s about it.”
Both the Wolf Pack and Irish hope to improve on their season-opening games a week ago. The Wolf Pack narrowly beat Cal Poly 30-27 in overtime in front of 19,138 fans at home and the Irish lost 50-47 to Texas in overtime in front of 102,315 fans in Austin, Texas. Brian Kelly’s Irish fell eight spots in the Associated Press rankings to No. 18 this week after losing to Texas. The Irish also fell 10 spots in the coaches’ rankings to No. 21. The Wolf Pack is 4-21 against ranked teams in school history, with the last victory coming against Boise State (34-31 in overtime) in 2010.
“I’m sure Notre Dame fans think the sky is falling,” Polian said.
“Everybody should just tap the breaks and relax,” Kelly said this week.
Many Wolf Pack fans also weren’t thrilled to see the Pack struggle against Cal Poly of the FCS Big Sky Conference.
“For what it is worth, I said all last week that the (Cal Poly) game was going to be a very competitive football game,” said Polian, who would even his Nevada record at 20-20 with a win over Notre Dame. “The reaction to that game is further proof that nobody listens to me. Now, I would always rather win by more than three points. I did not want to go into the Cal Poly game and come out of it in overtime. But our guys faced adversity, took a deep breath, collected themselves and came out of it with a victory.”
Notre Dame trailed Texas 31-17 in the second half and rallied to force overtime. Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer passed for 215 yards and five touchdowns and rushed for 77 yards and another score. Two of Kizer’s TD passes went to Equanimeous Brown (13 and 30 yards). Irish running back Tarean Folston ran for 88 yards on 18 carries.
“I have a lot of respect for Notre Dame offensively,” Polian said. “They are really explosive.”
The Wolf Pack allowed 445 yards to Cal Poly’s run-heavy triple-option offense last week with 383 yards coming on the ground. The Irish will also likely throw the ball more than the 12 times Cal Poly chose to test the Pack secondary.
“Kizer is very talented,” Polian said of the Irish quarterback. “He’s an accurate thrower and he’s big. He is also very underrated as a runner. When Kizer keeps it, it hurts you. It is usually a meaningful play.”
Notre Dame’s defense, though, allowed 517 yards to Texas (the Irish had 444 yards). Notre Dame also played three true freshman in their secondary.
“I don’t care who you are,” Polian said, “if you have three freshmen playing in your defensive backfield it is hard. You will obviously have some growing pains.”
The Wolf Pack ran the ball 34 times last week against Cal Poly (for 174) yards as James Butler gained 123 yards on 21 carries. Quarterback Tyler Stewart was 17-of-23 for 189 yards and two scores through the air.
“The strength of their defense is up front and that will be a challenge for us,“ Polian said.
The Wolf Pack insists it’s ready for the challenge.
“It will be exciting to see what The Union (the offensive line) and I are really made of,” Macauley said. “It should be a blast to go against those guys.”
The Wolf Pack, Polian said, wore down physically against Cal Poly’s triple option offense.
“We had a lot of guys playing their first significant football for us in that game,” Polian said. “I expected mistakes from those guys. But I also expect to see significant improvement. Some of our veterans also need to play better. I sat down with some of our seniors and told them, ‘Hey, you are a fourth or fifth-year senior and we need better.’ I expect us to be better.”
“The triple option is hard to play against because you don’t see it that much,” Wolf Pack free safety Asauni Rufus said. “This week (in practice) it was kind of cool to see a normal offense again. Everyone was kind of relieved. I know we‘re ready for this challenge. We’re ready to step up.”
The Wolf Pack promises not to be in awe of all of the Notre Dame tradition and history.
“When the whistle blows for the kickoff, we’ll be ready,” Gipson said.