The path was a little unusual, but after two games, Nevada sits right where it was supposed to: 1-1.
A surprisingly dramatic 30-27 overtime win over Cal Poly in the opener was followed last week with a 39-10 loss at No. 18 Notre Dame.
It’s hard to get a grasp of Nevada’s identity after two weeks. In the opener, an incredibly inexperienced front seven was assigned the responsibility of defending the triple option. Cal Poly led the nation in rushing last year. Last week, Nevada played in one of the most iconic college football stadiums in the country against a team with national title aspirations.
The picture of the 2016 Pack should start to come into focus on Saturday.
Nevada is playing its third game of the season, at home, against a MAC team it should beat. Heavy emphasis on should.
The Bulls had their bye last week, so Lance Leipold has had extra time to prepare his team. Like Nevada, Buffalo didn’t wow in its opener against an FCS team. In fact, the Bulls went down at home to Albany, 22-16.
Nevada fourth-year coach Brian Polian used three quarterbacks (Tyler Stewart, Asauni Rufus, Ty Gangi) in the loss at Notre Dame and said he plans to use that package throughout the year. Buffalo will also use multiple quarterbacks, Grant Rohach and Tyree Jackson.
The Wolf Pack leads the all-time series with the Bulls, 2-0. Nevada sneaked out a 24-21 win in upstate New York last year.
The second game at the newly renovated Mackay Stadium kicks at 6 p.m. on Saturday.
About the Bulls
Coach: Lance Leipold (second season, 5-8)
2016 record: 0-1, 0-0 Mid-American Conference (MAC)
2015 record: 5-7, 3-5 (fourth in MAC – East)
Quarterback: For the first time since November 2012, someone other than Joe Licata is taking the snaps for the Bulls. Licata is the best quarterback in Buffalo history and got a look from the Cincinnati Bengals in camp before losing the battle for the third-string job. Now it’s Grant Rohach and Tyree Jackson behind center. They were listed as co-starters on Buffalo’s depth chart. Rohach is a graduate transfer from Iowa State, where he started five games, four in 2013. Jackson is a 6-7 redshirt freshman, who threw for nearly 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns his final two years of high school. Rohach started in the loss to Albany, completing 3-of-9 passes for 52 yards and two picks. Jackson entered in the second quarter and finished the game out. He was 14-of-25 for 125 yards with one touchdown and one pick. Jackson is the better runner of the two. Expect to see them both on Saturday.
Weapons: Regardless of who is quarterbacking for the Bulls, they will look for senior wide out Marcus McGill. McGill grabbed three passes for 32 yards in the loss to Albany and is just 44 yards shy of 1,000 for his career. He provides a veteran presence on a youthful receiving corp. Just three other pass catchers have a career reception. Jordan Johnson is the featured back, starting for just the fourth time in his career in the opener. Johnson ran the ball 23 times for 114 yards and wasn’t tackled for loss once. Johnson ran for 811 yards (4.7 yards per carry) last year with 12 touchdowns – four shy of the school’s single-season record.
What to look for?
-Polian said he will once again use three quarterbacks. Tyler Stewart will remain the starter. Backup Ty Gangi will see time. And sophomore starting free safety Asauni Rufus, who ran the triple option in high school, will do the same for the Pack. But if you have three quarterbacks, how many do you really have? Expectations for the offense as a whole were on the rise in the offseason and the unit has yet to get rolling in 2016. Using multiple quarterbacks is Polian’s attempt to provide a push. Mixing Rufus in occasionally may provide a spark, simply because it’s a completely different look for opposing defenses. Stewart and Gangi, however, are similar players. Gangi is the better runner. It appears to be his job to take with confidence in Stewart maybe fading.
-Nevada ran for 289 yards in last year’s win at Buffalo. Butler had 177 of them on just 16 carries. Those numbers were inflated by a 91-yard burst in the second quarter. Through two games this year, it’s been all Butler in the backfield. It was believed Penn State grad transfer Akeel Lynch would maybe even split reps with Butler coming into the season. That has not been the case. Lynch has carried the ball just five times for 28 yards. Freshman Jaxson Kincaide ran for the lone touchdown at Notre Dame last week on just his second career carry. The rushing attack will try to chip away against a Buffalo defense that returns eight starters from a year ago. Butler will need to find room to work to take pressure off the passing game.
-Special teams were a mess for Nevada last week. Alex Boy did boom a couple punts, but two questionable decisions on kickoff returns led to a safety and a short field for the Irish. Nevada also allowed a long punt return. Nevada is not good enough to struggle on special teams. It’s something that was puzzling for a team that’s typically sharp in that aspect. The opponent and setting likely played a large factor. Polian was a special team coordinator for five years at Notre Dame, Stanford and Texas A&M before taking his first head coaching gig at Nevada in 2013.
-It was in a loss, but last Saturday may have been a coming out party for redshirt freshman linebacker Gabe Sewell in front of a national audience. He’s a hard guy to miss, too, with a mop hanging out of his helmet. Sewell led the team with nine tackles and has 16 on the season. He shared the team lead with two tackles for loss. In his third collegiate start on Saturday, look for Sewell to have a heavy presence.
It’s difficult to imagine Nevada’s offense suddenly getting into a rhythm, especially with three quarterbacks, and putting up a big number. Buffalo is going to load the box and force whoever is taking the snaps to throw the ball. The defense, which was put in tough positions throughout the Notre Dame game by the offense and special teams, played pretty well all things considered. With numerous new skill position players breaking in for the Bulls, this is the least challenging team Nevada’s had to prepare for this season. Nevada will win this one. But like it was last year, it’ll be closer than the fan base would like.
Nevada 24, Buffalo 17