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Back-in-town team seeks win against Buffalo

Joe Santoro
LVN News Service
The Wolf Pack's Dameon Barber, right, goes after a loose ball during the Cal Poly game two weeks ago.
THOMAS RANSON / LVN |

Brian Polian doesn’t believe that anyone is surprised, shocked or stunned by what his Nevada Wolf Pack football team has done so far this season.

“We are 1-1 after Cal Poly and Notre Dame,” said Polian of the Pack’s 30-27 overtime win over Cal Poly at home two weeks ago and the 39-10 loss at Notre Dame last week. “Who in town bet anything different than that?”

The Wolf Pack, which has won four consecutive home games dating back to last October, will host the Buffalo Bulls on Saturday night (6 p.m.) at Mackay Stadium.

“We are starting to get to the point on our schedule where we are playing teams that look like us,” Polian said. “It is certainly a more even playing field against this opponent than it was against a Top 20 team (Notre Dame).”

The Wolf Pack played even with Notre Dame through one quarter last week before allowing the Irish to score 32 unanswered points. “They were a better team, no doubt about it,” said Polian of Notre Dame. “But I am disappointed the game wasn’t more competitive than it was. There were some missed opportunities.”

“We’ve had some peaks and valleys in the first two games,” said Pack running back James Butler, who has rushed for 173 yards and two touchdowns this season. “But now we are ready to stay on an incline where we need to be.”

The Bulls might be exactly what the Wolf Pack needs after losing by 29 points at Notre Dame. The Pack went to Buffalo a year ago a week after losing at Texas A&M (44-27) and brought home a 24-21 victory as Butler rushed for 177 yards (91 on one carry).

“We want to take a big step in the right direction after not living up to our standard last week,” Pack safety Asauni Rufus said.

The Wolf Pack’s 1-1 record at this point in the season isn’t surprising. But Buffalo certainly didn’t expect to come to Reno this week at 0-1. The Bulls lost to the Albany Great Danes, a FCS team, 22-16 two weeks ago after routing them a year ago 51-14. The win was Albany’s first ever against a FBS team.

“That certainly wasn’t what we wanted to start off the season,” Buffalo tight end Mason Schreck said this week. “But we are going to put that in the rear view and not look back.”

The Bulls, which have had two weeks to prepare for the Wolf Pack after a bye week, haven’t even settled on a starting quarterback yet. Senior Grant Rohach was just 3-of-9 for 52 yards and two interceptions against Albany while freshman Tyree Jackson was 14-of-25 for 125 yards through the air. The 6-foot-7, 245-pound Jackson also rushed for 60 yards on 10 carries. Buffalo coach Lance Leipold, though, said this week that he won’t name a starter until Saturday.

“There’s a good chance that both will see action,” said Leipold, who is 5-8 in two seasons at Buffalo after going 109-6 with six Division III national championships at Wisconsin-Whitewater. “Both guys showed flashes (against Albany).”

Polian is impressed by what he saw of Jackson on film this week.

“He looks like a (basketball) power forward,” Polian said. “He runs real well for a guy that size and he has a very live arm. He is going to be a very good player in the future, a real difference maker. And he has our attention right now.”

Jackson, who rushed for 1,064 yards and passed for 4,491 over his final two years in high school in Michigan, weighs as much or more than eight of the Pack’s 11 starters on defense.

“He’s going to be hard to bring down,” said 180-pound Wolf Pack cornerback Dameon Baber. “He’s a big quarterback. It might be a little bit difficult.”

The Bulls’ uncertainty at quarterback forces the Pack defense to prepare for both Jackson and Rohach. The Bulls’ defense will be in a similar situation this week against the Wolf Pack offense.

“Last Saturday Nevada played three quarterbacks so we have one more to get ready for than they do,” Leipold said.

Tyler Stewart remains the Wolf Pack’s unquestioned starter at quarterback. The senior was 10-of-23 for 113 yards and an interception against Notre Dame. But the Wolf Pack also tossed in backup Ty Gangi against the Irish and used Rufus as a triple-option quarterback. Gangi, a sophomore who played at Ventura (Calif.) College a year ago, was 2-of-3 for 88 yards. Rufus, a former high school quarterback at Bakersfield (Calif.) High, carried the ball twice for three yards.

“It was an exciting experience,” Rufus said. “It felt good being back under center, kind of like riding a bike.”

Polian said the idea of using Rufus as an option quarterback came to mind while the Pack was preparing to face Cal Poly, a triple-option team, this summer.

“When they first told me I was kind of in shock,” Rufus said. “I didn’t really know if it was really going to happen. But I was glad we actually did it.”

The Wolf Pack is looking for ways to pump life into its offense. The Pack scored 21 points on three touchdowns in the first quarter of the season opener against Cal Poly but since then has scored just two touchdowns and 19 points over seven quarters of regulation and one overtime.

“Our job on offense is to move the ball and score points,” Polian said. We don’t care who does it. The only thing we’re worried about is more production. Ty Gangi can make plays with his feet and he can throw the ball. Asauni was a high school champion triple-option quarterback. When you have guys with skill sets you have to take advantage of those skill sets.”

Polian said both Gangi and Rufus will continue to see time at quarterback.

“We wanted to give Ty an opportunity in a game setting,” Polian said. “He made positive plays and earned more reps. Asauni and our triple option package is something we will keep. The package is a good package. Asauni can do a lot of stuff and he knows it like the back of his hand. Look, that defensive front we saw (against Notre Dame) is a good front. They looked like the Cincinnati Bengals. So we’ll continue to work on it and teams will have to prepare for it when they played us. It just gives us another wrinkle.”

“The more things defenses have to prepare for against us means less time they have to focus on our base offense,” Butler said.

Polian said that freshman running back Jaxson Kincaide will also see more playing time, especially since senior Akeel Lynch suffered a concussion against Notre Dame and remains questionable for Saturday’s game. Kincaide scored the Wolf Pack’s only touchdown at Notre Dame — the Pack’s only touchdown in its last seven quarters of regulation — on a six-yard run. “I’ve been impressed with Jaxson,” said Polian of the Fort Lauderdale, Fla. product. “His amount of touches will increase.”

The Wolf Pack offense is 11th in the 12-team Mountain West in rushing at 136.5 yards a game, 11th in total offense at 331.5 yards a game and 11th in total first downs (34).

“We haven’t had a chance yet to see how creative (offensive coordinator) Coach (Tim) Cramsey can be,” Polian said.

Buffalo can also be creative and flexible on offense. The Bulls can throw with Jackson and Rohach and they can also run the ball with authority. Jordan Johnson had 114 yards on 23 carries against Albany and Johnathan Hawkins had 41 yards on eight carries.

“They (Johnson and Hawkins) don’t have the same skill set but they look like Notre Dame backs,” Polian said.

And they run behind a physical offensive line that is built to play in Buffalo’s harsh winters.

“Their offensive line is bigger than ours across the board,” Polian said. “They are nasty and physical. They are tough and they are trying to be tough.”

“Their O-line is real fiesty,” Rufus said.

The game against Buffalo is Polian’s second in a row against one of his former employers. He was an assistant at Notre Dame from 2005-09 and was at Buffalo in 1998 and from 2001-03. He also graduated from St. Francis High (like Lynch did) in Buffalo.

“There are some things I really miss about Buffalo,” Polian smiled. “Hot dogs and chicken wings are certainly two of them. And my in-laws.”