The Nevada Sagebrush sports editor provides an exclusive insight on the Nevada Wolf Pack ahead of Thursday’s Mountain West matchup.
The Collegian: Nevada stands in third place in the West Division of the Mountain West at 4-4 overall and 2-2 in conference play. How do you think the rest of the season will pan out for the Wolf Pack?
Healy: Nevada hits the toughest stretch of its schedule during the month of November with the road game against Fresno State, the final home game against San Jose State and then two tough road games against Utah State and San Diego State. Fresno State looks dysfunctional and erratic with its quarterback situation, so I expect a win there. The other three games, however, I see the Pack losing out and falling just short of qualifying for a bowl game.
The Collegian: What is the identity of the Wolf Pack in 2015?
Healy: The lack of an identity has been the identity of this team if that makes sense. Against New Mexico, the Pack defense stopped the challenging triple option, and the offense ran for over 350 yards. Against teams like Wyoming and UNLV, the offense has struggled, and the team had trouble establishing itself. When they’re on, it’s all about the run.
The Collegian: How has quarterback Tyler Stewart done both in the pass and run game in his first year in the starting role?
Healy: Stewart is an interesting guy at quarterback. He has games like New Mexico, where he went 16-for-19 through the air and had four total touchdowns, but more often he has games like Hawaii and Buffalo where he hovers slightly above 50 percent completion. The offensive line has not been helpful to his cause at all, but when Stewart is forced to make plays through the air, the Pack loses.
In Nevada’s four losses this season, Stewart has thrown 29 times or more (32 against Arizona, 29 against Texas A&M, 44 against UNLV and 41 against Wyoming).
The Collegian: Nevada’s option attack has flourished in the past with former quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick and Cody Fajardo leading the way. Is that the same case this year?
Healy: Yes and no. Tyler Stewart isn’t like those guys who could gash defenses for 60-yard runs, but the running game has still been effective when the offensive line is able to open holes. The running backs, Don Jackson and James Butler, have made up for Stewart’s lack of wheels, and Stewart has some athletic ability to get necessary yardage close to the goal line.
The Collegian: The team ranks 25th in the country in rushing yards at 212 per game, with running backs Butler and Jackson as the team’s go-to guys. What does each back bring to the table?
Healy: They both have similar running styles, which means the number of carries for each has been relatively similar (Jackson with 137 and Butler with 125). Butler brings more big plays with his style with his season-long of 91 yards while averaging 6 yards per carry. Jackson provides more of a short-yardage option with seven touchdowns compared with Butler’s four. Jackson also provides good leadership. He is a captain and is one of the vocal leaders on the sideline. The flexibility of having two quality backs makes play calling and not increasing risk of injury much easier for the coaching staff.
The Collegian: Aside from the run game what are some of the team’s other strengths?
Healy: The front seven is arguably the best unit on the team. NFL talent level defensive linemen Ian Seau and Rykeem Yates are paired with linemen Lenny Jones and linebacker Jordan Dobrich and make it difficult for opposing offenses to establish the run. The reason this unit isn’t getting as much recognition is because the secondary is so bad that most teams just try and air it out.
The Collegian: How would you describe head coach Bill Polian’s tenure since he took over in 2013?
Healy: In one word, rough. His first season was (4-8) not a good start, but after a 7-5 year last season, it seems the team has taken a step backward. Polian came into the program with hype around him as being a good recruiter, but the evidence has been mixed so far. Losing to rival UNLV twice at home certainly doesn’t get him many supporters, but there are more issues than just losing the Fremont Cannon. Polian was fined $10,000 for two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties against Arizona in September, and he has called the leadership of his players into question publicly. It will be an interesting storyline to keep up on.
The Collegian: How was Nevada able to pull off the comeback win in its most recent game over Hawaii after being down 17-0, and what does it mean for the team entering Thursday’s matchup?
Healy: Nevada has a bad habit of not showing up in the first half, which has cost the Pack games against UNLV and Wyoming. There was a moment when Jackson just gathered the team around him and gave a big pep talk and it seemed to have shaken them all awake. Butler rushing for 134 yards and two touchdowns certainly helped, and the defense was able to dial up the pressure with Ian Seau getting four sacks. Going into Thursday, I think it will give the team confidence to know that they have the ability to make big comebacks if they fall behind, and it helped establish Butler’s ability to carry the team when times are tough.
The Collegian: The Pack and ‘Dogs are each coming off a bye. How do you think that will impact the game?
Healy: I think both teams benefit from the bye because of health. Nevada has been going through different offensive linemen due to injuries, so getting some guys healthy and ready to go before the home stretch of the season should help.
The Collegian: Score prediction?
Healy: I hate these because I’m never right. I’m going with 31-20 Nevada because Fresno State has huge issues with quarterback, and the front seven for the Pack should bottle up the Bulldogs’ running game. If Nevada can hold on to the ball and not turn it over, then it should be a win for the Wolf Pack.