RENO - There are a few big questions facing Nevada when it opens its 2005 football season by hosting Washington State (1-0) tonight (7:05 p.m., ESPN) at Mackay Stadium.
n How will Nevada coach Chris Ault's new "pistol" offense fare against a rugged WSU defense?
n How will Nevada's new 3-4 defense fare without starters J.J. Milan and Paul Pratt?
n How will Nevada's young offensive line hold up in its first game as a group?
All fair questions to be sure. Ault said he wants Nevada to focus on itself and not worry about the size and speed of Washington State, which knocked off Idaho 38-26 last Thursday night.
"Everybody is anxious to play a game," Ault said. "Games are a measuring stick of where you are at. We've made some huge, huge changes (on both sides of the ball)."
The Cougars, who are a 10-point favorite, played last week and have obviously worked some kinks out from their opening game.
"Our advantage is having a game under our belt," WSU head coach Bill Doba said. "I think that's huge.
"The disadvantage is we haven't seen them play and they have a new 3-4 defense which we haven't seen so we really don't know what they will do with it."
The injuries to Pratt and Milan set Nevada back early in camp. Their spots are being taken by Joey Garcia, a JC transfer, and Nick Fuhr, a redshirt sophomore. Ezra Butler will start opposite Fuhr at the other outside linebacker spot. Butler played extensively at nose tackle last year.
"Fuhr is a blue-collar guy," Nevada co-defensive coordinator Barry Sacks said. "Nick is very strong at the point of attack where J.J. was more elusive at the point of attack."
Redshirt freshman Matt Virden or Sergio Villasenor will start at free safety for Nick Hawthrone, who is expected to see some action, and is making excellent progress back after suffering a calf contusion recently.
Virden is excited about the opportunity, and admits he's been cramming the last few days to get more comfortable mentally in the defensive scheme.
"They (the Cougars) have a high-powered offense," Sacks said. "They have some big-play football players; guys that can score from anywhere on the field."
Sacks was referring to running back Jerome Harrison and wide receivers Michael Bumpus and Jason Hill. Harrison rushed for 165 yards and two scores against Idaho. Hill caught five passes for 96 yards and two scores and Bumpus caught eight balls for 88 yards and a score.
"He (Harrison) is explosive," Sacks said. "He reminds me of Ryan Moats (former Louisiana Tech back) except he is probably faster. Hill and Bumpus can run and make big plays."
Triggering the Cougars' offense is sophomore Alex Brink, who completed 17 of 29 for 230 yards and three scores.
Ault said one of the reasons he switched to the pistol is that it still allows the Pack to run from an I-formation, which he believes is the best way to run the ball. It also will give quarterback Jeff Rowe extra time to read the defense and get his passes away earlier.
Rowe, who passed for 2,633 yards and 15 scores last season, is happy the season has finally arrived.
"There are always a lot of questions before the first game," he said. "Last year I was more nervous. This year I'm more excited.
"Offensively they haven't seen it (the pistol). We really haven't changed that much, but we'll do some things that hopefully will catch them off guard. They are a very athletic defense. They are pretty good."
Rowe has his favorite targets - Caleb Spencer and 6-3 210-pound Nichiren Flowers - back. Flowers averaged seven catches and 93 yards a game last year en route to a 91-catch season. Spencer caught 67 balls a year ago, four for touchdowns.
"He (Flowers) is a good receiver," Doba said. "He's tall and runs well. It will be a real challenge for our defense."
No doubt WSU's defense, led by linebacker Will Derting, hopes to take advantage of Nevada's starting offensive line, which has only 21 career starts to its credit.
"Defensively speaking, they have some great size," Ault said. "They did a nice job of stopping Idaho's two-back offense."
Notes: Western Athletic Conference personnel, including commissioner Karl Benson will be at today's game to publicize the WAC's Play Up theme. The WAC will be part of a big tailgate party behind the North end zone today. ESPN Radio and Nevada marketing personnel also will be on hand, and free t-shirts will be given out ... The fourth, fifth and sixth floors of the new parking garage directly behind Mackay Stadium are available for fan use as will the Whalen parking structure ... Nevada enters today's contest with a three-game losing streak, having lost its last three games of the 2004 season... Nevada officials are hoping for a good walk-up crowd which could bring the attendance to between 20 and 25,000. The Pack will be competing against several high school games in the area for fans... Nevada was 5-1 at home last year, losing only to Boise State.
Contact Darrell Moody at email@example.com, or by calling (775) 881-1281