Nevada opens up season number two under coach Brian Polian against FBS Southern Utah.

by Chris Boline

If there is one thing Wolf Pack fans can be thankful for this sea- son, it’s this year’s slate of non-conference games.

Gone are the likes of national powerhouses Florida State and UCLA and in come Pac-12 foes Washington State and Arizona. However, while the caliber of the Division I teams might have gone down, the strength of Nevada’s Big Sky Conference opponent this year is a step up from UC Davis. The Pack opens up the year on Saturday against Southern Utah, who went 8-5 last season and will be a good test for the Nevada defense to start out with. For the Wolf Pack to come up from the depths of last season’s debacle, they need to not overlook the pesky Thunderbirds.

CANTU LEADS CHARGE FOR SUU

While the quarterback position was still undecided at the end of fall camp for Southern Utah, the heavy favorite has to be senior Aaron Can- tu. The six-foot-two quarterback finished with over 2,000 yards passing and 10 touchdowns last season. However, Cantu was fairly inconsistent in 2013 as he threw 12 interceptions and he also split time with sophomore Mike Sharp in the backfield. The speedy Sharp was mainly used as a running quarterback last season (he was second on the team with 439 rushing yards), but will look to improve on his lackluster passing stats this year (one touchdown to three picks).

The Thunderbirds lost their two top pass-catching options last season, but senior Easton Pederson will look to pick up some of the slack. The wide receiver finished last season with 385 receiving yards and two touchdowns. Tight end Anthony Norris also returns and led all Southern Utah receivers with four touchdowns last year.

COWSER AND HOLLEY SPEARHEAD DEFENSE

Similar to the Wolf Pack, the Thunderbirds feature a wrecking ball defensive end with a luscious head of hair. Junior James Cowser led Southern Utah with double-digit totals in tackles for loss (19) and sacks (10.5) on his way to being named as a second-team All-Big Sky selection. The battle in the trenches will be one to watch for as Cowser matches up with either redshirt freshman Austin Corbett or senior Kyle Roberts in an effort to slow down Nevada quarterback Cody Fajardo.

In the linebacking group for Southern Utah, senior Matt Holley leads the way. Holley was snubbed from first and second team all-conference lists, but landed on the third team roster. However, the senior from Centennial High School in Las Vegas will have a lot to play for as he will most likely be starting in front of many of his classmates at Mackay Stadium on Saturday. The linebacker led the Thunderbirds in tackles last season with an impressive 110 and was second on the team with 13.5 tackles for loss.

Finding a way to neutralize these two will be critical to Wolf Pack running backs Kendall Brock and Don Jackson finding seams in the defense and for Fajardo to stretch the field.

Chris Boline can be reached at cboline@nevadasagebrush.com.