Nevada opens season tonight versus Cal Poly
For the Nevada Appeal
RENO — The Cal Poly Mustangs are not Brian Polian’s idea of an easy way to start off a college football season.
“This game concerns me,” the Nevada head coach said of the Wolf Pack’s season opener today (6:30 p.m.) at renovated Mackay Stadium. “Your administration comes to you and says, ‘Hey, let’s play a FCS (Division I-AA) team,’ which I am all for. But I would prefer not one that runs the triple option.”
The Mustangs’ triple-option offense has led the FCS in rushing the last three seasons, including last year when it averaged 387 yards a game on the ground.
“Offensively, they cause a lot of problems,” Polian said. “We have to be disciplined. But If you have to play a triple-option team, I am glad it is happening in the first game of the year so we have more than four or five days to prepare for it.”
The Mustangs finished 4-7 overall in the Big Sky Conference a year ago and are picked to finish ninth in the 13-team league this year by the league’s media and coaches. The Mustangs played a lot of high-scoring games a year ago, averaging 33.8 points a game and allowing 35.5.
“I love the attitude and the work ethic of our team,” Cal Poly coach Tim Walsh said this week. “We have a difficult task ahead of us at Nevada. But we’re excited to go play football.”
Cal Poly has lost its biggest weapon on offense off last year’s team. Senior quarterback Chris Brown rushed for 1,084 yards (second in Big Sky) and 13 touchdowns and passed for 846 yards and 12 more scores a year ago. Dano Graves, who redshirted last season after playing in 11 games combined as a sophomore and junior in 2013 and 2014, takes over as Cal Poly‘s starter. Graves, a 5-foot-10 senior, started five games as a sophomore at Cal Poly and played in five games as Brown’s backup in 2014 as a junior.
“He is a winner and such a mature young man,” Walsh said. “He has that ‘it’ factor and that ‘get it’ factor. We really have a coach playing quarterback. He is that intelligent. In our offense we need a guy to get the football in the right place and to do it quickly, allowing us to play at the tempo we like to play. We have that in Dano Graves.”
“He brings a little bit of juice to their offense,” Polian said.
The Wolf Pack has struggled against triple-option teams in recent past, allowing 38 points to Air Force in 2014 and 42 in 2013. Graves began his college career at Air Force but never played for the Falcons’ varsity.
“It is not a regular style offense you face a lot,” Wolf Pack linebacker Alex Bertrando said. “It will be a good test for us. Everybody just has to stick to the game plan and do their job.”
“It is assignment football,” Polian said. “You have to rely on fundamentals. We have to communicate, keep our poise and handle it. It is about discipline. We don’t want guys trying to do too much and trying to make plays that don’t belong to them. If you try to do that against the option, it is going to be a problem.”
“We know most of the things they are going to do,” Wolf Pack defensive lineman Malik Reed said. “It’s just about being in the right spot. It’s tricky. You have to be on the details.”
The Wolf Pack will keep a close eye on Mustangs fullbacks Joe Protheroe and Jared Mohamed. Protheroe ran for 779 yards (sixth in Big Sky) and six touchdowns last year while Mohamed picked up 463 yards and three touchdowns.
“You have to stop the fullback first,” Polian said. “If you don’t stop the fullback you will get a steady diet of him throughout the game. All he (Protheroe) does is move the pile forward.”
The Wolf Pack will unveil a new offense of its own on Friday. Gone is an offense that relied on the pistol formation on every play since it was invented before the 2005 season. In its place is a spread offense designed by new offensive coordinator Tim Cramsey that will also feature a pistol look now and then. Cramsey spent the last three years as the offensive coordinator at Montana State in the Big Sky Conference. His offenses at Montana State averaged 36 points a game in two games (the teams didn’t play in 2013) against Cal Poly. Last year Cramsey’s Montana State offense scored 45 points and piled up 602 yards against Cal Poly.
“I don’t want us to do the same things that Tim’s offense did against them the last two years,” Polian said. “That concerns me.“
The Wolf Pack whipped Cal Poly 63-0 at Mackay Stadium in 1998 the last time the two teams met. That’s the last time the Mustangs, who have scored in 194 consecutive games, have been shut out. This is the fourth season the Wolf Pack has opened a home season against a Big Sky team, beating Davis in 2013 and 2015 and Southern Utah in 2014.
The Wolf Pack has also lost just one game at home to a FCS team (Weber State, 23-21, in 1992) since joining the FBS (Division I-A) in 1992. The Pack has won 12 consecutive games against a I-AA (FCS) opponent with its last loss coming in 1994 at Boise State, 37-27, in Boise’s final year in the Big Sky. Since that loss at Boise, the Pack has also won eight games in a row against current Big Sky Conference teams.
“Our preparation for Cal Poly is very serious,” Polian said. “We are taking nothing for granted.”
The Mustangs, who captured the Big Sky championship in its first year in the conference in 2012, have had some success against Division I-A teams, going 5-26 since 1980. They are also 3-5 against Mountain West teams with victories over San Diego State in 2006 and 2008, and Wyoming in 2012. The Mustangs lost at Arizona State last year (35-21) and Nevada will be its only FBS opponent this year.
“If you are Cal Poly you have nothing to lose,” said Polian, whose Wolf Pack finished 7-6 a year ago.
“If you win, great. Nobody went into the game thinking you are going to win.”
Polian and the Pack insist they’re taking the Mustangs as seriously as they will take Notre Dame next week when they travel to South Bend, Ind., for a Sept. 9 game.
“They are college athletes on scholarship, too,” Wolf Pack senior offensive lineman Austin Corbett said. “If we take this game lightly we are going to lose to Cal Poly. We have to treat them like everybody else.”
“Anybody can be beat on any given day,” Wolf Pack running back James Butler said.