The Nevada Wolf Pack football team is well aware that it should beat the UC Davis Aggies rather easily on Thursday night (7 p.m.) in its season opener at Mackay Stadium.
It’s just that nobody is allowed to talk about it.
“We overlook nobody,” Pack head coach Brian Polian said. “I can’t imagine we’re looking past anybody.”
The Football Championship Sub-division Aggies, of the Big Sky Conference, finished just 2-9 last year. The last time they ventured into Mackay Stadium they went home with a 36-7 loss in 2013.
“We can’t look past any opponent,” Wolf Pack linebacker Bryan Lane said. “We look at them with the same importance as Arizona. No difference.”
The Wolf Pack, a member of the Football Bowl Sub-division since 1992, has not lost to a FCS opponent since a 37-27 loss at Boise State in 1994. The Pack is 15-3 against FCS teams since 1992. Davis has gone 2-11 against FBS teams over the last 11 seasons, beating just San Jose State (14-3) in 2010 and Stanford (20-17) in 2005.
“We’ve preached to the team to not be that team that looks past a FCS opponent,” said Polian, whose first victory as Pack head coach (he is 11-14 overall) came against Davis two years ago. “Every year they (FCS teams) are reaching up and grabbing somebody.”
“They (Davis) have nothing to lose,” said Lane, whose 25 career starts lead all current Pack players. “They want to upset us. We just want to come out with energy and keep our foot on the gas. Just don’t stop, don’t let up.”
The Wolf Pack, which hasn’t lost a season opener at home since a 55-21 loss to Washington State in 2005, will unveil a new full-time starting quarterback against the Aggies. Gone is Cody Fajardo, who led the team with 1,046 rushing yards and 2,498 passing yards a year ago. In his place will be junior Tyler Stewart, who last threw a pass in a game almost two years ago.
“He’s not making his debut,” said Polian of Stewart. “He started a game two years ago (and beat Hawaii in 2013). He’s made his debut and that is important.”
Filling in for an injured Fajardo against Hawaii, who injured his knee against Davis two weeks earlier in 2013, is one thing. Taking over the program after eight years of Colin Kaepernick and Fajardo, well, that brings with it a whole different level of pressure and expectations.
“He’s not going to run away from defenders like Cody and Kap did,” Polian said. “Look, Cody and Kap were special. They are special. To compare anybody with Cody and Kap, that’s not fair.”
Polian has clearly tempered his expectations for the quarterback position this year.
“I want ball security,” Polian said. “I’d like to see us make the routine plays flawlessly. I’d like to see drives end in touchdowns and not field goals. If he (Stewart) pulls it down and (runs) for 15 yards instead of running away from the defense, we’re not going to be upset. We’ll just move the chains and keep moving forward. The identity of our offense is not going to change. We’re still going to do the same things.”
The Wolf Pack, though, is expected to rely on its running backs to run the ball a bit more than it did with Kaepernick and Fajardo behind center. The role of running backs Don Jackson (957 yards last year) and James Butler (635 yards), after all, is to take the pressure off Stewart.
“Offensively we want to run the ball and play a physical style of football,” Polian said.
The ability to run the ball has been the Wolf Pack’s identity ever since former coach Chris Ault implemented the pistol offense starting in 2005. That identity, though, might change somewhat this year because of an experienced defense, which features accomplished players such as linemen Ian Seau, Rykeem Yates and Lenny Jones and linebackers Jordan Dobrich, Matthew Lyons and Lane.
“Our front seven has to be aggressive and play fast,” Polian said.
“We (the defensive line) have to set the tone,” Jones said. “We’re the most experienced guys. We have to come out and bring the juice and show the other guys how we want to play football this year.”
The Aggies feature quarterback Ben Scott and wide receiver Ramon Vargas on offense. Scott started the Aggies’ last six games last year and ended up throwing for 1,734 yards and 19 touchdowns. Vargas caught 41 passes for 665 yards and eight scores.
“Ramon Vargas is to Ben Scott what (former Pack receiver) Brandon Wimberly was to Cody Fajardo,” Polian said. “If it gets hairy, the ball is going to go to (Vargas).”
Davis, though, bases its offense on its ability to run the ball. Manusamoa Luuga (137 yards last year) and Justin Williams (110 yards in 2014) are expected to carry the load at running back, replacing the departed Gabe Manzaneres, who gained 2,116 yards over the last two seasons.
“They are dedicated to running the ball and that sets up their play action passes,” Polian said.
“They run the ball down your throat,” Lane said.
Jones, who has 13 career sacks, would love to see the Aggies throw the ball.
“We don’t get to hit our quarterbacks (in practice) a lot,” smiled Jones. “It will be great to get a few hits on a quarterback.”
The Wolf Pack-Davis game is one of nine games the Mountain West Conference will play against FCS teams this weekend and one of 12 it will play this season. The Mountain West, which was created in 1999, has an overall record of 80-9 against FCS teams.
“They (Davis) have a lot of guys that could play in the Mountain West,” Polian said. “They have some guys that, based on last year’s film, have our attention. There’s no doubt about it. But I’d rather open up against Davis at home than opening up against UCLA on the road like we did two years ago.”