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Nevada Wolf Pack: 10 things to watch for when the Pack plays at Louisiana Tech

JOE SANTORO
For the Nevada Appeal

Ten things to watch when the Nevada Wolf Pack (11-1, 6-1) meets the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs (5-6, 4-3) in Ruston, La., on Saturday (noon, PDT) . . .

1. Will the Wolf Pack keep their eyes on the prize?

The Wolf Pack coaches and players have said all the right things this week. They promise to come out on Saturday focused and with energy and passion because a victory means a share of the Western Athletic Conference title. Will they back up those words or will they wake up on Saturday with a lampshade on their head after a week of celebrating their 34-31 victory over Boise State? If they don’t score on their first drive, start looking for the lampshade.

2. The Wolf Pack will light up the scoreboard

This rivalry is now 15 years old and we still don’t know if the Bulldogs will ever slow down the Pack offense. The Pack has played 10 games (winning six) against Louisiana Tech starting in 1995 and has averaged 39.3 points a game. The Pack offensive explosion started right away in the first game of the rivalry when Mike Maxwell threw for 535 yards on 35 completions and Alex Van Dyke caught 16 passes for 272 yards and three scores in a 49-45 win in Ruston. The Pack, which has scored 21 or more points in all 10 of its games against the Bulldogs (34 or more in nine of 10) has yet to stop scoring in this rivalry.

3. Colin Kaepernick is already warming up his right arm

The Wolf Pack quarterback has already enjoyed two monster passing games against the Bulldogs in his career, throwing for 397 yards and four touchdowns in 2008 and 404 yards and three touchdowns in 2007. He might put up numbers like that in the first half alone on Saturday if his coaches let him. Louisiana Tech has one of the worst pass defenses in the nation. They are 117th out of 120 teams in pass defense, allowing 302 yards through the air each game. The Bulldogs have already given up 300 or more passing yards in a game five times this year. San Jose State’s Jordan LaSecla drilled them for 496 yards and five touchdowns just last week.

4. Lennon Creer will be focus of Wolf Pack defense

The Louisiana Tech running back is third in the WAC with 1,132 rushing yards. He ran for 252 yards and three touchdowns last week against San Jose. Against Boise State he ran for 149 yards and two touchdowns and he ripped Idaho for 179 yards and two scores. Creer, a 6-foot-1, 215-pound junior, spent his first two college seasons at Tennessee (he ran for 388 yards in 2008 for Tennessee). This is the Wolf Pack’s chance to prove they can slow down a quality back. The Pack defense has had some rough games against elite running backs this year, allowing 145 yards to Eastern Washington’s Taiwan Jones, 198 to Cal’s Shane Vereen, 217 to Fresno State’s Robbie Rouse and, last week, 152 to Boise State’s Doug Martin.

5. Phillip Livas will be out to set a NCAA record

The 5-foot-8, 160-pound Bulldogs kick and punt returner already has his name in the NCAA record books. He returned a punt 88 yards for a touchdown last week against San Jose State, giving him eight combined kick and punt returns for touchdowns in his career, tying five other players in college football history. Livas is going to try to put those five others in second place against the Pack. Livas averages 24.1 yards on kickoff returns and 15.3 on punt returns and has one touchdown in each category this year.

6. Louisiana Tech also has a lot on the line

The Wolf Pack certainly has a nice pot of gold waiting for them after the game if they win. It will give them just their second WAC title in 11 years in the conference. But Louisiana Tech also has a few nice parting gifts if they pull off the upset. The Bulldogs need one more victory to become bowl eligible as well as get to .500 (6-6) for the regular season. A victory will also give them a share of fourth place in the WAC with Fresno State at 5-3. And, oh yeah, the Pack, at No. 14 in the Associated Press rankings, would be the highest ranked opponent the Bulldogs have ever beaten in their school history.

7. The Wolf Pack secondary will be busy

The Bulldogs like to spread the ball around in head coach Sonny Dykes’ offense. Dykes, the former offensive coordinator at Arizona and Texas Tech, has finally settled on Ross Jenkins as his starter at quarterback. And Jenkins, who has thrown for 1,572 yards and 11 touchdowns in 10 games (just seven starts) can be dangerous. The problem with defending the Bulldogs passing game is that you don’t really know where the ball is going. The Bulldogs have 11 players on their roster with 10 or more catches this year and 17 with at least one.

8. Wolf Pack needs to finish strong

The Wolf Pack has a chance this season to do something it has only done once since 1998 — finish a season with at least two wins in its last three games. The Pack won at least two of its last three games every season from 1988 through 1998. The only time they’ve done it since was in 2005 when they finished with a five-game winning streak.

9. Joe Aillet Stadium tough place for visitors

Louisiana Tech has won 12 of its last 16 games at home. They have also played three Top 25 teams at home in recent years and played all three tough. They beat No. 17 Fresno State 28-21 in 2004 and narrowly lost to No. 20 Hawaii in 2007 (45-44 in overtime) and to No. 5 Boise State in 2009 (45-35). And the Pack now has to deal with a natural letdown after earning the greatest victory in school history (according to their head coach). The Pack has played five games (winning three) in Ruston and four of them have been dogfights.

10. Chris Ault looking to end title drought

The Wolf Pack head coach has gone four consecutive years (2006-09) without winning a conference title. The dry spell equals the longest stretch Ault has ever gone in his career without winning a conference title. He also went four years without a title from 1979-82 in the Big Sky Conference (the Pack was not in a conference in Ault’s first three years, 1976-78). Ault’s teams won seven titles from 1983-1995.