Friday's contest will tout two of the best quarterbacks in college football as WSU's Connor Halliday and Nevada's Cody Fajardo, who rank fourth and sixth in career active passing yards nationally, lead two high-flying offenses.
By Brady Johnson
Assistant Director, Athletic Communications
RENO, Nev. - The eyes of a national television audience will be fixed upon a whiteout Mackay Stadium on Friday night when Nevada's Pistol offense and Mike Leach's air raid offense go head-to-head. Yes, there will be no shortage of storylines for Nevada's week two matchup.
The Wolf Pack host the nation's second-ranked passing offense and Leach's explosive Washington State Cougars at 7:30 p.m. (PT), Friday on ESPN. While second-year head coach Brian Polian wasn't willing to concede the contest is a statement game, there was no denying a national audience and Pac-12 opponent adds a little excitement into the fray.
"It's human nature to be excited for this," said Polian. "I know that I am. I'm excited to play on the big stage on ESPN and I'm sure our players are too, and I'm also sure they're excited to play a Pac-12 opponent much in the same way Southern Utah was excited for us."
Although it will be just the third meeting between the teams, both programs share a common tie in regard to offensive ingenuity. A piece of Nevada's identity revolves around the creation of the Pistol offense by Hall of Fame coach Chris Ault, which put the Pack on the map as an elite non-power five conference program. In fact, Nevada debuted the offense in 2005 against Washington State and while the Pack lost that game, it went on to win a conference championship and bowl game that season.
Meanwhile, while Leach has infused Washington State's identity with his renowned spread, pass-heavy offense since being hired by the program prior to the 2012 season, Polian and offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich have taken the Pistol formation and installed new wrinkles and new personnel.
"There was a time when Coach Leach and Coach Ault were both considered outliers in the mid to late 90's when they were throwing it all over the place," said Polian. "There's a common tie in that regard."
Considering both program's offensive histories - and each offenses' 500+ yards of total offense in week one - Friday's spotlight will likely shine bright on both offenses.
Nevada and Washington State both rank in the top 30 in total offense in FBS despite taking vastly different routes to get there. Nevada dominated the clock in week one and ran 96 plays in a well-balanced attack, accounting for 303 passing yards and 244 rushing yards in a 28-19 victory against Southern Utah. True to Leach's mantra, Washington State threw the ball 56 times while rushing for just six yards. The Cougars fell short, 41-38, to Rutgers despite senior QB Connor Halliday's 532 passing yards and five touchdowns.
Halliday - who ranks fourth in active career passing yards, just ahead of Nevada's Cody Fajardo - attempted an NCAA record 89 pass attempts in a single game last season, scoring 38 points at second-ranked Oregon. The Cougar offense presents unique challenges for opposing teams, who frequently are forced to place importance on limiting big plays, tackling in space and extending drives on offense to keep Halliday and the WSU offense on the sideline.
When asked during the weekly press conference if he was excited to face the Cougar offense, Polian said half-jokingly that excited might be the wrong word. It's an understandable sentiment from Polian, who has two less days to prepare than Leach after Washington State opened the season on a Thursday.
"It will be a test - there's no doubt about that," said Polian. "It's tough to prepare for on a short week, but I think it's a test that our players are excited for. One positive we have is that Southern Utah played a spread, up-tempo offense, and there will be some carry over in that. It's a test that I think our guys are excited for."
In their weekly press conferences, both head coaches echoed somewhat similar statements on not expecting an offensive shootout despite the high-profile of both offenses. Polian stated the Pack staff is looking for any way to find a victory, whether it's in a shootout or defensive battle.
Meanwhile, Leach recalled taking his Texas Tech team to Mackay Stadium in the second week of the 2008 season. With Nevada's Colin Kaepernick and Tech's Michael Crabtree - now teammates at the 49ers - the game touted two of the top offenses in the nation. Yet, Leach described it as a defensive battle, which ultimately ended in a 35-19 Red Raider win.
"It was a funny game because both offenses were the top in the country, so it's supposed to be a huge shootout, but it was a defensive game," Leach said. "Both defenses played well and shut down the other team's offense. Fortunately, our defense played a little better."
Friday's clash will also feature additional storylines with a few familiar faces on the sidelines. Washington State running backs coach Jim Mastro returns to Reno, having previously spent 11 seasons on Nevada's staff (2000-10). Nevada sophomore long snapper Tyler Wilson will be on the opposite sideline of his father, WSU linebackers coach Ken Wilson, who spent 23 years at the University of Nevada. Polian joked that he planned on taking Tyler's cell phone away to prevent any secrets slipping to Pullman.
If Tyler Wilson and the Pack are to be the one's celebrating at the end of the game, Cody Fajardo thinks belief will play a big role. Nevada's veteran players - who were apart of the Pack's last Pac-12 win at Cal - and position leaders met privately Monday, stressing the important of getting the younger players on the team to believe in themselves.
"As long as everyone believes they can win, there is no reason we can't execute out there," said Fajardo, who is 32 yards away from hitting 10,000 yards of total career offense. "We know what it takes to beat a Pac-12 team and we have to get the younger guys to believe that and have a great mentality in practice. I think everyone has bought in."
The countdown to kickoff rolls on tonight as the first edition of the Coaches Show with Polian will air live at The Lil' Waldorf at 7 p.m. (PT) on ESPN Radio 94.5.
At halftime, the 2014 Nevada Athletics Hall of Fame class will be honored. The class will include the 1990 Wolf Pack football team, linebacker/defensive end Jorge Cardova, running back Chance Kretschmer, diver Lang Rao and volleyball player Michelle More Williams. The 1990 Nevada football team played for the I-AA National Championship, and will become the third team to be inducted to the Nevada Athletics Hall of Fame.
Fans are encouraged to wear white at Friday's game to help the Wolf Pack white out Mackay Stadium. The official Whiteout shirts are available at Silver and Blue Outfitters in the Meadowood Mall and at the Nevada Wolf Shop on campus.