These opportunities have come before for Nevada, but the Wolf Pack has never taken advantage.
So here it is, another chance to beat a team from an automatic qualifying conference. Only this time, the Pack (2-0) gets to host California (2-0) at Mackay Stadium in a nationally televised game tonight (10 p.m. EDT, ESPN2).
With all eyes on it, Nevada gets to show the country what dual-threat quarterback Colin Kaepernick is all about. But more importantly, it is a chance to show it is no pushover in the WAC.
“It's a great opportunity for us, but in the past, we've had opportunities as well. We just haven't capitalized on them,” Kaepernick said. “We're looking to capitalize on this one this week."
Getting a high-profile team to come into Reno has been challenging. This is California’s first visit to Reno since 1915. The one and only time Nevada won came Nov. 7, 1903. The game also marks the fourth time a Pac-10 team has played in Nevada since 1992. Nevada lost all those games.
Home or away, the record against higher-profile teams from AQ conferences has been dismal. Since Chris Ault returned to coach in 2004, Nevada is 1-12 against AQ opponents. The lone win came against Northwestern in 2006. Since then, Nevada has lost six straight.
“I think it's a terrific opportunity, but we’re going to have more opportunities down the road,” Ault said. “This is the opportunity of this weekend against a team from the Pac-10. It ought to be exciting for our community. I know it's exciting for our team. We’re looking forward to the opportunity.”
Nevada, of course, wants to finally take advantage. To do that, the Wolf Pack is going to need a big game from Kaepernick.
For all that Kaepernick has accomplished, he is relatively unknown outside the WAC. Never mind that he had 402 yards of total offense in a 51-6 win against Colorado State last week. Never mind that in the game, he became the ninth player in NCAA history to rush for 3,000 yards and throw for 3,000 yards in his career.
He seems to lag behind in national attention, but his accomplishments in the Pistol offense speak for themselves. Nevada leads the country in total offense, and Kaepernick ranks third behind Denard Robinson of Michigan and G.J. Kinne of Tulsa.
Ault said Kaepernick has made improvements in the passing game, improvements that have shown in the first two games of the year.
“He’s always been a great runner, where he needed to improve was his efficiency as a passer,” Ault said. “He worked very hard last year, his spring was outstanding, his fall camp’s been outstanding and I really think he’s taken that part of his game up quite a bit. That adds to the dimension. We’re throwing the ball more this year than we have in the past. He just continues to get better in the passing part of the game.”
Kaepernick is completing 71 percent of his passes, with four touchdowns and no interceptions. Nevada has more carries than pass attempts, naturally, but the total yardage is essentially even (590 rushing, 594 passing). Kaepernick has never completed more than 60 percent of his passes. His best was last year, with a 58.9 completion percentage.
Nevada hasn’t been challenged the way it will be against California, which leads the nation in total defense and has given up just one touchdown all year. The Bears come in off a 52-7 win against Colorado last week. The offense, behind Kevin Riley and Shane Vereen, has played well, too.
More than anything, though, this is a game Nevada needs to prove itself. The Wolf Pack is off to a 2-0 start for the first time since 1995, but imagine what a big win against California would do for this program.
“Whenever you play against opponents who are supposed to be better than you, you always want to show them up and win that game, so that’s what we’re going to look to do,” Kaepernick said.