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Know thy Opponent 2016: Nevada Wolfpack

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Purdue's first ever game against the Mountain West Conference comes against one of its middle teams.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

In 2016 Purdue will play a Mountain West Conference opponent for the first time ever. Usually if Purdue is playing a west coast team it comes against someone from the Pac-12, but when the Nevada Wolfpack comes to Ross-Ade Stadium on September 24th it will mark the first time Purdue has played a member of that conference while they are a member. Purdue has played Hawaii once, but they were in the WAC when that game occurred in 2006.

That makes for some uncharted territory here. Northwestern recently announced that they are paying Nevada $1.3 million to play next season, but this is game 1 of a home-and-home with Purdue scheduled to travel to Reno in 2019. They are generally a pretty good mid-major program too. When playing the Big Ten they are 0-1 against Maryland, 0-1 against Nebraska, and 0-1 against Wisconsin, but 1-1 against Northwestern. They have also been known to ruin a Boise State season or two from time to time.

This makes for a very interesting game for Purdue. It is not an unbeatable opponent by any means. Purdue, as a Big Ten team playing at home, should be able to win these types of games. As we have learned though, we can't take any opponent for granted.

Nevada Wolfpack

2015 Record: 7-6, 4-4 Mountain West

Bowl result: beat Colorado State 28-23 in Arizona Bowl

Blog Representation: Mountain West Connection

Series with Purdue: First Meeting

Last Purdue win: None

Last Nevada win: None

Head Coach: Brian Polian (18-20 in 4th season)

Last Season for the Wolfpack:

It was a weird finish to last season for Nevada. In this era of "Everyone gets a bowl bid if you can get even 5 wins" Nevada was easily bowl eligible at 6-6, but got sent to the Arizona Bowl. Normally that is fine, but they were paired with conference foe Colorado State. It is the first time since the 1979 Orange Bowl that conference foes met in a bowl game. They ended up winning the game 28-23.

The victory capped an up and down season where they beat up on some bad teams and also had some really bad losses. They lost to major conference foes Arizona (44-20) and Texas A&M (44-27) in addition to 3-9 UNLV and 2-10 Wyoming. Their best wins were over New Mexico and Colorado State. It wasn't much, but it was good enough for a second straight bowl game and 15th since moving up to FBS in 1991.

It wasn't that long ago that this was a team in contention for major bowls in 2010 they went 13-1 and won the Mountain West, upsetting No. 3 Boise State 34-31 in the process. A 27-21 loss at Hawaii prevented an undefeated season. In the five seasons since they have gone 7-6 four times.

There are a few interesting connections with this program. First, their stadium is Mackay Stadium, similar in name to our own Mackey Arena. Second, Kendall Stephens recently announced he would transfer to their basketball program. Third, head coach Brian Polian is the son of former Colts executive Bill Polian.

Nevada Offense

Last season Nevada was a young team but still went to and won a bowl game. They will bring a pretty good offense to West Lafayette to face a defense that is questionable even on its best days. They feature senior quarterback Tyler Stewart who threw for 2,139 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. He was also a solid running threat on the ground with an additional 489 yards and 4 scores.

That ground game is where Purdue should be very concerned. They are going to run out of their patented "pistol" formation (not quite shotgun, but not under center), and Stewart has a pair of good backs to work with. James Butler is a 5'9" 200 pounds bulldozer with 1,346 yards and 10 TDs last season. They lost a second 1,000 yard rusher in Don Jackson (who also played some quarterback), but transfer Akeel Lunch from Penn State should step right in. Lynch had 282 yards and 2 scores on 55 carries in 2015 for Penn State before falling behind Saquon Barkley. He earned his degree, however, and transferred out west for his final season. We saw him in 2013 when he ran for 44 yards on nine carries against us. he has 1,318 yards and 7 TDs in his career, so he will fit in quite nicely.

Here is what the SB Nation preview had to say about their running game:

In 2015, Nevada had a run-first offense that was drastically inconsistent at actually running the ball. It's easy to get distracted by the raw totals -- namely, the fact that Don Jackson and James Butler combined for 2,428 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns -- but only 35 percent of their carries gained five or more yards, and the Wolf Pack were very dependent on big plays to score points.

Unlike Cincinnati, most of the top receivers for Nevada return. Jerico Richardson and Hasaan Henderson each had over 50 receptions and 700 yards in 2015. Henderson is a matchup nightmare at 6'5" 220 pounds for our inexperienced secondary. The duo combined for nine touchdowns of the 24 passing TDs that the Wolfpack had.

Another huge factor will be the offensive line. All five starters return as well as most of the backups. Austin Corbitt, Nathan Goltry, and Jacob Henry provide consistency by starting all 13 games in 2015 and Jeremy Macauley started 11.

Nevada Defense

We could be in for an afternoon of fireworks at Ross-Ade much like the Bowling Green game last season. That game exhibited the worst planning for former defensive coordinator Greg Hudson, and it led to the Falcons moving the ball at will. Nevada has an offense that can move, but not much of a defense. The top four players on the defensive line are gone, leaving Salesa Faraimo with four tackles for loss from his nose tackle position as the best guy up front.

The same is mostly true for the linebackers, who didn't play that well and the top four are now gone. Alex Bertrando, with 24 tackles, has the most experience. L.J. Jackson and Travis Wilson both played a fair amount, but they were not starters a year ago.

In the secondary all four starters will be back, which will be beneficial after what the SB Nation preview had to say:

The odds of finding seven decent starters are relatively solid. But the second string is going to be completely unproven, and it will be a lot to ask for these players to spell the eventual starters effectively. Depth appears it might again be a big issue on D.

We should keep an eye on free safety Dameon Barber, who had six interceptions and 55 tackles in 2015. Asauni Rufus also had an interception and a team returning best 81.5 tackles. Overall the unit was regularly torched last season, so this should be a game for David Blough to gain a little confidence.

Nevada Special Teams

Brent Zuzo is an excellent kicker who was 17 of 19 on field goals last season and did not miss inside 40 yards. Alex Boy can also flip the field after averaging 42 yards per punt and dropping 18 of 65 inside the 20.

In the return game Elijah Mitchell is dangerous. He returned one kickoff for a score last season and averaged 26.4 yards per return. Andrew Celis was also a very good punt returner.

Game Outlook

If Purdue is going to make any noise in 2016 it has to beat a team like Nevada. The Wolfpack are decent, but not great. They will probably be a bowl caliber team in the Mountain West Conference, so beating them would be a really nice victory.

Therein lies the rub. They were better than Purdue last year and certainly look like they are for 2016. This is their big game against a Power 5 conference opponent and they will be up for it because it presents a chance to turn some heads. Even beating an awful Purdue team is good for a non-Power 5 program. Ask Marshall, or Bowling Green, or Central Michigan, or Northern Illinois. To this point Darrell Hazell has not been able to beat even middling non-Power 5 teams. This team is no better or worse than Central Michigan in 2014, and look what happened there.

This being the last non-conference game means it is the last chance to show if there will be any improvement going into the conference season. Under normal circumstances a Big Ten team should have Purdue's slate and be looking at a 3-0 start, or maybe 2-1 because Cincinnati is a quality program. At Purdue's current level beating Cincy would be a shock and there is no guarantee it can beat even a mediocre Mountain West team at home. I am even scared of losing the opener to Eastern Kentucky because they have themselves a very good quarterback in transfer Maty Mauk.

Way Too Early Prediction:

Purdue's defense has been bad under Hazell even against lousy running games. Against good ones it has been horrid. Nevada is a good running team. They may not have much of a defense, but I can see them getting first down after first down and continually marching down the field. It is no surprise that I think we're in for a very long season, but this game will show just how long. If Nevada rolls into West Lafayette and wins finding even a second victory on the schedule will likely be a stretch. In the end, I do not trust Hazell at all by now, and I hope he proves me wrong. Nevada 34, Purdue 27