California's stingy defense collides with Nevada's high-powered offense Friday night in a nationally televised matchup that should help provide a better idea of whether either team has a shot at winning their conference.
Both 2-0, the Pac-10's Golden Bears are crossing the state line to play the Western Athletic Conference's Wolf Pack for the first time in Reno since Cal won 81-6 in 1915.
The Bears are giving up an NCAA-fewest 161 yards per game and have a balanced, big-play offense that exploded for victories at home over UC Davis (52-3) and Colorado (52-7).
But they're favored by less than a field goal against a Nevada team that led the nation in rushing last year and is tops in total offense so far this season, averaging 592 yards per game in wins over Eastern Washington (49-24) and Colorado State (51-6).
"I don't see how you could take this team for granted," said Cal coach Jeff Tedford. "I'm sure it's going to be a pretty hostile environment.
"You watch the tape and it's evident that these guys can get after you," he said. "They're very, very good at what they do — very precise, very disciplined and have the guys to do it."
Nevada's "pistol offense" featuring a one-set back and the quarterback in the shotgun is led by senior signal-caller Colin Kaepernick and senior running back Vai Taua. They are two-thirds of the trio that last year became the first in NCAA history to each surpass 1,000 yards rushing in the same season.
Last week, the 6-foot-6 Kaepernick became only the ninth player to both run and pass for 3,000 yards in his NCAA career. So far this year, he has run for four touchdowns and passed for four — three of them to tight end Virgil Green.
In the win over Colorado State, Kaepernick ran for 161 yards and passed for 241 while the Wolf Pack amassed 631 yards and scored on every offensive possession.
"You look at their scores from last year, there's a 70, there's a couple of 60s, there's a couple 50s on there," Tedford said. "They can explode on offense very quickly, so it's going to be a major challenge for us to slow those guys down a little bit."
He will look to his defense, including linebacker Mike Momahmed, who led the Pac-10 in tackles a year ago and equaled his career-best 14 last week against Colorado. He missed some practice time this week with a sprained toe but Tedford said he is expected to play at Nevada.
On offense, Cal quarterback Kevin Riley has completed nearly two-thirds of his passes (29 of 44) for 455 yards, seven touchdowns and no interceptions. He said it's a big game for both teams.
"Especially if you look at it from their standpoint, not a BCS conference, this would be a gigantic win for them," Riley said about Nevada. "And if we win, that's what we're supposed to do. We've just got to go out there and play our game."
Riley's favorite targets are junior wide receiver Marvin Jones and true freshman wideout Keenan Allen, both with nine receptions and two touchdowns. Running back Shane Vereen already has five touchdowns.
"They're exceptional athletes," Nevada coach Chris Ault said. "There's a variety of weapons Cal has and can use. You have to pick your poison."
"They took Colorado to the woodshed," he said. "The most important thing for us is not giving up the big play — keeping things in front of you."
Nevada is 2-0 for the first time since 1995 and Ault said he was pleased with improvement last week in his defense led by senior defensive end Dontay Moch, the WAC's 2009 defensive player of the year.
The winningest coach in Nevada history with a record of 208-96-1 in his 26th year, Ault was asked this week if he'd spotted any weaknesses in Cal's lineup.
"We'll hold onto that until after the game,' he said. "Believe me, there aren't many."