The last Mid-American Conference opponent Nevada faced was Buffalo in 2004, where the Wolf Pack beat the Bulls 38-13. The Pack did not make a bowl game that season, but they have reached one in all but two years since then. Aside from a tough 4-8 spell in 2013, Nevada has been consistently turning in winning records in a tough Mountain West Conference. The Wolf Pack are coming off of a very average season in which they went 7-6 (4-4) and lost in the R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl. While they look to have more success in 2015, their youth may prove to be an obstacle to taking another step forward.
Nevada's most glaring weakness comes at quarterback. Last year's play-caller, Cody Fajardo, is one of two FBS quarterbacks ever to finish with 9,000 yards passing and 3,000 yards rushing in his career. The other person to achieve the feat: former Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick. Junior Tyler Stewart appears to be the next man under center for the Wolf Pack. The 6-foot-4, 220 pound junior saw a single play last year against UNLV, where he ran the ball. The year before, however, Stewart played in seven games as a redshirt freshman following an injury to the other quarterback. He led The Pack to a win over Hawai'i in his first career start. While he is the only man in the quarterback contingent with playing time under his belt, he has been listed as a co-starter alongside sophomore Dante Mayes and redshirt freshman Hunter Fralick heading into summer camp.
The running back unit contains senior Don Jackson and sophomore James Butler, both of whom saw solid opportunities last season. Jackson ran for 957 yards and 7 touchdowns, while Butler racked up 639 yards and found the endzone five times. Jackson has been placed on the watchlists for the Doak Walker and Wuerffel awards. Nevada enjoyed running a two-back system combined with Fajardo, making it so The Pack had three options to run the ball. Expect Jackson and Butler to receive more carries this season, as projected starter Stewart is not seen as good of a runner as Fajardo was.
The men providing the front line of defense for these playmakers were one of the Wolf Pack's strongest points last year. However, after losing all-conference center Matt Galas and both the right guard and right tackle, the O-line is looking for people to step up. Most valuable to this line will be sophomore tackle Austin Corbett who, in his freshman year last season, totaled more starts than anyone else on the line has in multiple years. Junior Jeremy McCauley and sophomore Joey Anglemire return on the left side of the ball. The only listed right-side lineman is senior Taylor Evans, but he has yet to ever start a game. Even if Evans gets the nod, expect sophomore Adam Khouri and junior Jacob Henry to switch from the left side and help out the gaping hole on the right. As for center, senior Nathan Goltry is the only listed center, and he has yet to start a game either. Last year's Nevada offense featured a versatile, dual-threat quarterback and a strong line. This year's offense looks to be a toss up.
The Wolf Pack returns an experienced receiver core. Juniors Jerico Richardson and Hasaan Henderson each tallied over 500 yards last year, and junior tight end Jarrod Gipsen gained 291. With Stewart being more of a pocket passer, expect him to spread the throws around to a variety of personnel. Sophomores Wyatt Demps and James Butler got good looks last year as freshmen, and they will be even more involved this year.
The defense returns a good number of starters from 2014, but it will be without all but one in the secondary. Senior safety Duran Workman is the lone returning starter in the secondary. That being said, the the defensive line and linebacker units will be strong once again. Senior defensive ends Ian Seau and Lenny Jones will join defensive tackles Rykeem Yates and Salesa Faraimo - Faraimo being the only non-senior - to provide a veteran defensive front. The linebackers will be led by three seniors in Jordan Dobrich, Matthew Lyons, and Bryan Lane, Jr., all of whom have at least a season of experience under their belt.
This Wolf Pack team has uncertainty on the offensive side of the ball, but a strong defense is returning a vast majority of starters. The team showed they can stifle opponent drives, but it will be up to an offense with many new faces to take advantage of the opportunities the defense figures to provide. Buffalo proved to be a top-60 team in both passing and rushing last year. The matchup between Buffalo's run game and Nevada's defensive line should be a great one to watch. The key for Nevada in this one will come from their defensive secondary and offensive line stepping up despite their inexperience. Both the Bulls and Wolf Pack will be pushing for a win at this important juncture in the season, as this is each team's last non-conference game before they enter into conference play for the year.
The game is being played September 26th at University at Buffalo Stadium. Time TBD.