By Neil Patrick Healy
How many of you are picking Nevada to win against Arizona? Not many of you, huh? OK then, how many of you think the game will be close? Yeah, I didn’t think so. Yes, Nevada goes up against a team that won 10 games last season and won the deep Pac-12 South with then first-year quarterback Anu Solomon throwing for 3,793 yards with 28 touchdowns and nine interceptions. The Wildcats also return sophomore running back Nick Wilson (1,375 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2014) and junior wide receiver Cayleb Jones (78 catches, 1,103 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2014) to add to their steamroller offense. Beating the Wildcats will be extremely difficult, but don’t think it’s impossible.
Leading the Pack
Nevada ran the ball well last week against UC Davis, and senior running back Don Jackson is a major reason why. Out of Nevada’s 232 rushing yards, Jackson had 124 on 13 carries and two touchdowns with a staggering 9.5 YPC average. What makes Jackson’s outing more impressive is that he didn’t play the entire fourth quarter. With Arizona’s All-American linebacker Scooby Wright III (awesome name I know) missing the game after undergoing knee surgery, Nevada will be able to run Jackson early and often against the Wildcats weakened front seven.
Stat to watch for
This is a tie between time of possession and turnovers. Arizona played the Texas San Antonio Roadrunners last Thursday and avoided the upset in Tucson with a 34-24 win. The main reason for the close game is because the Roadrunners’ time of possession was 35:09 compared to the Wildcats 24:51. Going back to last season’s matchup between Arizona and Nevada, the Pack also held the advantage in time of possession with 35:48 compared to Arizona’s 24:12. Nevada played it close, but lost 35-28.
Turnovers were the nail in the coffin for the Roadrunners. Texas San Antonio outplayed Arizona in almost every category including rushing yards (193 to 163), passing yards (332 to 229) and in time of possession, but turnovers doomed the Roadrunners. Arizona scored two touchdowns on defense with one off an opening drive pick-six and the other off a fumble return in the third quarter. The Pack can’t afford to lose the turnover battle if they wish to pull the upset.
The biggest question
Will Nevada’s young secondary be able to hang with the high-tempo spread offense of the Wildcats? Despite the scare against the Roadrunners, quarterback Anu Solomon looked like his usual self. The sophomore went 22-for-36 for 226 yards and four touchdowns with zero interceptions.
Before the game against UC Davis, the starting secondary had combined for five career starts (junior cornerback Elijah Mitchell with three and sophomore free safety Kendall Johnson with two). Despite handling the Aggies for most of the game, UC Davis had success throwing the ball against the Pack secondary. Aggie quarterback Ben Scott went 32-for-47 for 238-yards and one touchdown. UC Davis had success in the passing game because they completed short, high percentage passes. If an FCS team can exploit the secondary’s weaknesses, then it may be a long afternoon against the Wildcats.
The Nevada front seven has its coming-out party against the Wildcats and makes it harder for Solomon to pick apart the inexperienced secondary. On the offensive side of the ball, Don Jackson and James Butler run the ball effectively and keep junior quarterback Tyler Stewart in favorable down-to-distance situations and avoid turnovers.
The high-octane offense of the Wildcats is just too much for the Nevada secondary and Anu Solomon continues to make his case as an elite quarterback. The Nevada offense has trouble running the ball just like in the 2014 matchup (108 total yards and 2.7 YPC) and Nevada loses a close game despite Stewart having a good game through the air.
Combine the best and worst-case scenarios. Nevada’s front seven plays a good game, but the secondary gets exposed late in the game. The Nevada offense will take advantage of a defense missing its All- American, but won’t be able to go score- for-score and will fall to 1-1.
Neil Patrick Healy can be reached at email@example.com and on Twitter @NeilTheJuiceMan.