Week 1 of “Pac-12 After Dark” will be highlighted by an interesting non-conference matchup between the Nevada Wolf Pack and the California Golden Bears in Berkeley on Saturday night. These two teams should provide a fun contrast of styles, as Nevada attacks teams offensively for 60 minutes and Cal can counter with a usually rugged defense that gives visiting teams headaches especially at home.
Carson Strong returns at quarterback for the Wolf Pack in 2021 for head coach Jay Norvell along with a nice cast of returning playmakers that will be looking to contend for the Mountain West title. Wide receivers Romeo Doubs (58 rec., 1,002 yds., 9 TDs) and Elijah Cooks (926 yds. in 2019) form a dangerous duo that will force teams to play more man coverage. The offensive line should be strong, as the Wolf Pack return three starters led by senior Tyler Orsini. Nevada wasn't as productive running the football (122.3 ypg, 108th in FBS), but it wasn't the focus of the game plan either. The defense returns eight starters from a unit that allowed 23.3 points per game and limited opponents to 377.7 total yards, good for 42nd in the nation.
California, which went 1-3 in its pandemic-shortened campaign, brings back plenty of experience on offense led by quarterback Chase Garbers. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave is hoping this unit takes a step forward after getting a full offseason to implement the playbook. Christopher Brown Jr. and Marcel Dancy return as a 1-2 punch at running back and must find a way to simply keep the chains moving to sustain drives and open up things for the passing game. Kekoa Crawford caught 19 passes for 232 yards and two touchdowns to lead a steady, yet unspectacular, group of wide receivers. The defense will need to be retooled on the fly since head coach Justin Wilcox and coordinator Peter Sirmon have just four returning starters to work with.
Nevada at California
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 4 at 10:30 p.m. ET
Spread: California -3
When Nevada Has the Ball
One of the most underrated keys to success for the Wolf Pack was Strong’s ability to take care of the football last season. Strong threw for 2,858 yards with 27 touchdowns and just four interceptions. Taking care of the football is going to be crucial for Strong this week because the Golden Bears' secondary is usually well-coached and finds a way to generate momentum-changing turnovers at home. Doubs' and Cooks' ability to win the one-on-one battles against the Cal secondary is going to be very important as the Wolf Pack need to find a way to create explosive plays.
The Golden Bears are going to learn a lot about their defensive front this week. End Brett Johnson broke his hip in the spring and is out for the season. It will be up to the outside linebacker duo of Cameron Goode and Kuony Deng to generate pressure on Strong for 60 minutes. If Cal can't throw Strong off his rhythm and make him uncomfortable in the pocket, it could be a long night for the home team.
When California Has the Ball
Musgrave will look to get Garbers rolling early with some quick passes to counteract the pressure from a senior-laden Nevada defensive front. Defensive tackle Dom Peterson led the Wolf Pack with 4.5 sacks in 2020. Patience in the running game must happen this week, as plays will be there for Brown and the other backs. Also, don’t be surprised if the Golden Bears bust out some trickery on offense. With a senior quarterback like Garbers, you can expect Musgrave will be willing to push the envelope to try and inject some confidence into this offense.
Four starters return along the offensive line, which should be enough to counteract the loss of long-time starting right tackle Jake Curran. Center Michael Saffell is a senior who will need to take charge of this group and have them set a strong physical tone right away against the Wolf Pack defensive front that will be looking to bring plenty of pressure all night long. if the offensive line can hold serve and keep the offense on schedule, then they will be in great shape.
This game should go down to the wire, as three of Cal's four games last season were decided by four points or fewer. Nevada isn’t a stranger to close games after going 3-1 in one-possession contests (7-2 overall) in 2020. The combination of Strong’s experienced cast of playmakers on offense and the defensive front are going to do just enough on Saturday night to give the Wolf Pack another one-score victory. It will also set off the annual narrative within the national media questioning the Pac-12 once again, as the curse of former commissioner Larry Scott is going to be an issue for a little bit longer.
Prediction: Nevada 27, California 24
Podcast: Week 1 Preview, Predictions & Spread Picks