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Wolf Pack Week 1 opponent preview and prediction: Cal Golden Bears

Oregon v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The Nevada Wolf Pack will kick off its most anticipated season since 2010 on Saturday against the Cal Golden Bears.

It marks the third time in five seasons under Jay Norvell when it’s opened a season against a Power-5 opponent. One of the two seasons it didn’t was last year — when it couldn’t play in any non-conference affairs due to COVID-19.

The Wolf Pack are, however, 1-1 in such games against Power-5 season-openers. What was the win, you ask? Down by 17 at halftime, Nevada stormed back and captured a 34-31 victory against Purdue after then-freshman placekicker Brandon Talton — a walk-on, at the time — nailed a 56-yard game-winning field goal as time expired.

Nevada enters off a very successful 7-2 season and returns practically 20 starters. Cal, on the other hand, was limited to just four games last year, finishing 1-3. Though it’s only victory came in the season-finale against then-No. 21-ranked Oregon at home, 21-17. Its final two losses to Oregon State (road) and Stanford (home) came by a combined five points.

From 2014-19, the Cal Golden Bears won six consecutive home openers, while Nevada’s most recent victory opening the season on the road came against Cal in 2012, 31-24. Nevada tailback Stefphon Jefferson rushed for 147 yards with three scores, the final coming on a game-winning two-yard score with 36 seconds left.

After several consecutive defeats, the Pack have won two straight against Cal (2010, 2012). Will recent history repeat itself again Saturday? Only time will tell, but let’s dig into the showdown!

Matchup: Nevada (0-0) vs. Cal (0-0)

When: Saturday, Sept. 4 at 7:30 p.m. PT

Where: FTX Field at Cal Memorial Stadium

TV: Fox Sports 1

Spread: Cal -3 (William Hill)

Money line: Nevada +140, Cal -160

Last Meeting: Nevada won 31-24 (Sept. 1, 2012)

Matchup History: Cal leads 32-6-1

When Cal is on offense:

Cal signal caller Chase Garbers hasn’t done much losing when he’s been on the field. He is 14-9 in his career as a starter, though his record improves to 14-5 when he’s played at least half the game. His 14 wins trail just UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson for the most among active Pac-12 quarterbacks.

In his first year in Bill Musgrave’s pro-style offense, Garbers tossed for 771 yards, six touchdowns and three interceptions, completing 62.5 percent of his passes a year ago.

Similarly to Cal in recent memory, the 6-foot-2 quarterback has performed well in a limited sample of non-conference affairs, completing 63.2 percent of his passes for 1,538 yards, 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions, none coming against Mountain West opponents. He saw a considerable dip in yards per attempt (8.2 to 5.7) from 2019 to 2020, completing 28 passes (on 215 attempts) of 20-plus yards in 2019 compared to just six (in 136 attempts) last year.

Musgrave will have tailbacks Damien Moore, Christopher Brooks and Marcel Dancy at his disposal, with Moore as the projected starter.

Moore registered team-highs in carries (38) and yards (188) without a touchdown, including 10 carries for 121 yards against Stanford, his only game with more than 30 rushing yards.

Dancy added 31 carries for 156 yards; his only game with double-digit carries came in Cal’s second game against Oregon State, totaling 17 for 76 yards. Brooks, who tallied 914 yards with eight scores in 2019, totaled just 65 yards (on 21 carries) with a touchdown a year ago.

Though the Bears lost Makai Polk to Mississippi State, they retain top wideout Kekoa Crawford. The 6-foot-1 target hauled in 19 catches for 232 yards and two touchdowns. Against the Beavers, Crawford had a career-high 10 catches — doubling the mark of his previous career best (5) — for 141 yards capped-off by a 21-yard score. Nikko Remigio, two year’s removed from posting team-highs in receptions (38) and yards (513), returns as well.

Arguably Cal’s most important offensive lineman, Michael Saffell, medically retired in July — leaving versatile right tackle Valentino Daltoso as its most experienced lineman. Additionally, the Golden Bears retain guards Matthew Cindric and McKade Mettauer, who occupy 32 combined starts between the two.

It will be no easy task slowing down Nevada’s robust front-four, headed by All-Conference honorees Dom Peterson and Sam Hammond.

Peterson marked the first Pack player since former Nevada and current Denver Broncos EDGE rusher Malik Reed to make two straight All-Mountain West first- or second-teams. Peterson, Nevada’s projected 3-tech lineman, finished last season with a team-high 4.5 sacks and seven tackles-for-loss, in addition to 27 tackles in just six games.

Hammond, the Pack’s top defensive end, tallied the second-most tackles-for-loss with 7.5, adding four sacks, 32 total tackles tackles and two pass deflections in eight regular season contests.

Lawson Hall returns as the team’s top tackler with 65. He had a team-high 8.5 tackles-for-loss with three sacks. Lamin Touray and Daiyan Henley, two of the team’s top six tacklers a year ago, will split time with Hall in Brian Ward’s 4-2-5 scheme.

On paper, the Wolf Pack secondary boasts a formidable trio of Tyson Williams, BerDale Robins and South Florida transfer Bentlee Sanders.

Earning a spot on the All-Mountain West Honorable Mention team last season, Williams recorded the second-most tackles with 56, intercepting two of the team’s five total interceptions. With 141 combined tackles, no Pack player has tallied more tackles than the hard-hitting safety since the start of 2019.

Robins, an All-Conference corner, recorded 27 tackles with an interception, a fumble recovery and five pass deflections last year. Sanders registered 94 career tackles, 7.5 for loss, two sacks, three forced fumbles and two interceptions in 31 career contests with the Bulls.

When Nevada is on offense:

Carson Strong leads the Mountain West’s most explosive offense, which finished top-3 in the conference in scoring (30.8 ppg; 3rd), passing (319.1 ypg; 2nd) and total offense (441.4 ypg; 2nd). They topped the conference in plays of 20-plus yards (51), 30-plus yards (26), 40-plus yards (15) and 50-plus yards (12).

Strong is a favorite to repeat as the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year. The junior gun slinger posted conference-highs in passing yards (2,858), touchdowns (27) and completion percentage (70.1), totaling only four interceptions.

His biggest beneficiary was 6-foot-2 wideout Romeo Doubs, the Mountain West’s only 1,000-yard receiver from a year ago and Nevada’s first 1,000-yard receiver since Rishard Matthews totaled 1,364 in 2011. Doubs had 58 catches for 1,002 yards with nine touchdowns, tying teammate Cole Turner for the team lead.

The Pack bring back “super senior” Elijah Cooks, coming off shoulder surgery, in addition to Turner. Cooks’ production and importance entering 2020 shouldn’t be forgotten — the 6-foot-4 target placed in the top-10 among Mountain West wideouts in receptions (76), yards (926) and touchdowns (8) in 2019.

Turner served as the Wolf Pack’s swiss army knife at tight end. The 6-foot-6, 240-pound specimen spent his first two collegiate seasons buried in the wide receiver depth chart. After transitioning to tight end last spring, he quickly flipping the script as one of the nation’s best.

Turner, a mismatch nightmare for opposing defensive backs, finished second on the team in receptions (49) and receiving yards (605) with nine scores — placing in the top-5 nationally amongst FBS tight ends in each category. Eight of his nine touchdowns were on red-zone opportunities.

Tailbacks Toa Taua and Devonte Lee usher the backfield. Taua added 675 yards on 5.9 yards per carry with four scores, while Lee totaled 427 yards on 5.2 yards a carry with two touchdowns. Taua added 31 catches for 214 yards with a receiving touchdown, while Lee had 17 catches for 96 yards.

Nevada returns four of its five offensive lineman, boasted by tackles Jacob Gardner, Aaron Frost and guard Jermaine Ledbetter, who was named team-captain for the second consecutive year.

The Union will have a tougher-than-preferred opening test against the Golden Bear defensive front, headed by outside linebacker Cameron Goode, who’s tallied 125 tackles, 27.5 tackles-for-loss and 14 sacks over his four-year career (26 games, all starts).

Over the last two seasons, Goode’s recorded 76 combined tackles, including 22 for loss and 12.5 sacks. Last year, in just four games, the 6-foot-4, 240-pound EDGE rusher tallied eight tackles-for-loss with 3.5 sacks, adding one pass deflection and one fumble recovery.

His last name pronunciation mirrors his sheer talent: Good.

He is joined by Kuony Deng, who’s transitioning to the other outside linebacker spot this fall. As an inside linebacker the year prior, he finished with 31 tackles, 2.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and 0.5 sacks.

Luc Bequette, entering his seventh collegiate season (seven years of college is a lot!), and JH Tevis man the defensive end positions in Cal’s three-man front. Bequette, one of its most dominant defensive presences, spent five seasons with Cal (2015-19) before playing as a graduate transfer at Boston College last year, adding 18 tackles, three tackles-for-loss and one sack.

The NCAA’s free year of eligibility given to last year’s fall athletes allowed the 6-foot-2, 295-pound lineman to return for another year of eligibility, where he’ll finish out his prolonged career. In six years, he has 146 combined tackles, including 15.5 for loss (11.0 sacks) under his belt (48 games).

As a sophomore in 2020, Tevis tallied 18 tackles with three tackles-for-loss and two sacks, the second-most on squad.

Cal’s two inside linebacker spots are held by Evan Tattersal and Muelu “Mo” Iosefa. Tattersal tallied 14 tackles, while Iosefa had 11 with one fumble recovery and pass deflection in the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign.

Elijah Hicks returns as a fifth-year senior, though it will only be his second at safety. He posted the team’s second-most tackles (28) with one of the its three interceptions. Josh Drayden and Chigozie Anusiem man the two cornerback spots after one was by 2021 fourth-round pick Camryn Bynum (No. 125 overall - Minnesota Vikings).

Prediction:

I went back-and-forth on this one. On paper, Nevada’s roster is better. But its incessant, three-week battle with unhealthy air quality (by traveling between the Bay Area and in, and around, Northern Nevada) in search for quality practice conditions, coupled by playing on the road in front of a sold-out crowd against a Power-5 foe will be a bigger challenge than it faced all of last year. This will be an excellent opening test for this ultra-talented Wolf Pack squad, who are 2-4 against Power-5 opponents in the Jay Norvell era. An unknown factor entering Saturday is how Wolf Pack quarterback Carson Strong will perform without a full fall camp due to recovering from offseason knee surgery. With a bevy of requisite skill-position weapons surrounding him, it’s difficult to foresee a detrimental outing. But against a good Cal defense — led by Goode, Hicks, Bequette and Deng — his health and performance certainly cracks my “what to watch for” list. With a full offseason and a majority of the starters returning, I expect Garbers and Cal’s offense to adapt to Musgrave’s system much better than it did last year. History isn’t in Nevada’s favor — in the Justin Wilcox era, Cal is 9-0 against regular season non-conference opponents (10-1 including bowl games). With Nevada’s talent, it has a chance in any game. Saturday’s matchup could easily be determined by the final possession — heck, it might be decided in the final seconds. Prediction: Cal 28, Nevada 27