PASADENA, Calif. (AP) — Coach Brian Polian already knew Chris Ault would be a tough act to follow at Nevada this fall.
With a season opener at the Rose Bowl against No. 21 UCLA, the task is even tougher.
Ault won 233 games over 28 seasons and two stints with the Wolf Pack while making the College Football Hall of Fame. He retired last December and handed the program to Polian, a 38-year-old former assistant at Stanford and Notre Dame who will make his head coaching debut Saturday.
Ault didn’t exactly do Polian any favors with the first game on the schedule, although nobody anticipated UCLA’s revitalization under new coach Jim Mora.
“Yeah, I can think of a bunch of different ways I’d rather start it,” Polian said. “It’s a top-25 team that’s got four or five legitimate first- and second-round (NFL) draft picks on the team. We’re going to get a pretty good idea right away of where we’re at.”
Mora and the preseason Pac-12 South favorites are also big favorites in their return to Pasadena after a breakthrough 2012, but the Wolf Pack’s new coaching staff is keeping UCLA anxious about the first game in a difficult schedule for the two-time division champions.
Specifically, the Bruins aren’t quite sure how much of Ault’s legacy will be on display. Nevada pioneered the pistol offense under Ault, but is expected to use elements of a spread offense this season, as well, with talented quarterback Cody Fajardo, an Orange County native.
“We’re not sure how much pistol they’re going to be in, how much spread they’re going to be,” Mora said. “So that offers another interesting dilemma for us: What do we practice against? We don’t have any preseason game film to go off of. They weren’t nice enough to send us any practice film, so to some extent we’re guessing a little bit on what they’re going to be offensively.”
Mora had plenty of time to get his defense in shape during training camp in San Bernardino, where they worked on a suitable follow-up to last season’s 9-5 record and Holiday Bowl appearance. UCLA lost its final three games of last season, but returned with an impressive mix of veteran leaders and young talent from another strong recruiting class.
Here are five things to watch in the first meeting between the schools:
1. HUNDLEY’S ENCORE: Brett Hundley rushed for a 72-yard touchdown on his first collegiate snap in UCLA’s last season opener. Nobody expects such theatrics again, but most everybody thinks Hundley’s sophomore season will be a suitable encore.
Hundley exceeded every expectation as UCLA’s freshman starting quarterback, breaking Cade McNown’s single-season school record with 4,095 yards of total offense while steadily leading the Bruins’ standout season.
After a second offseason of work and study, Hundley is even more comfortable in offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s aggressive schemes. He’s hoping to cut down on his sacks after getting dropped an FBS-high 52 times last season — frequently because he held on to the ball too long, or tried to make overly aggressive runs.
2. HOMECOMING GAME: Like most quality programs in the western half of the country, Nevada has a roster packed with Southern California natives who didn’t land a spot at UCLA or Southern California. The Wolf Pack have more than 30 locals eager to make a splash at the Rose Bowl in front of friends and family.
Fajardo would have strongly considered committing to UCLA while he was a star at Anaheim’s famed Servite High School, but he didn’t get an offer from former coach Rick Neuheisel. All three of Fajardo’s starting receivers also are from the area: sixth-year senior Brandon Wimberly (Gardena), Aaron Bradley (Cerritos) and Richy Turner (Long Beach).
3. BARR IS BACK: UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr said he’s ready for the follow-up to his dynamic junior season after missing time in training camp with an undisclosed injury.
Barr’s 13 1/2 sacks are the most by any returning player from last season, his first with the defense. He started all 14 games and led the Bruins’ defense with his aggressive, hard-hitting play.
4. PENETRATING THE LINE: The right side of Nevada’s offensive line is inexperienced, and UCLA probably will need to capitalize. Fred Lavulo, the Wolf Pack’s likely starter at right guard, is a junior college transfer who has never started a game at Nevada. Neither has starting right tackle Kyle Roberts, an occasional contributor for the past two seasons.
Keenan Graham is expected to be UCLA’s starting left defensive end in its 3-4 scheme, but the Bruins have a deep defensive front seven that could use several players to attack Nevada’s right side. Fajardo is a right-handed passer, so he’ll be well aware if the Bruins are able to sneak into his backfield.
5. SHAKY SECONDARY? UCLA’s biggest weakness appears to be on the back end of its defense, where safety Randall Goforth is the only returning player with significant experience. The other three projected starters combined for 11 tackles last season, and Fajardo is just the first in a line of experienced starting quarterbacks who will test the Bruins immediately.