RENO, Nev. — A 16-year journey of hard work, blood, sweat and tears will likely overwhelm Brian Polian on Saturday night for a moment or two.
“I promise, I will take a step back when I first go out on the field and take it all in,” said Polian, who will begin his Nevada Wolf Pack head coaching career Saturday (7:07 p.m. kickoff) against the UCLA Bruins in the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. “I’ll find my wife in the stands and she’ll probably cry a little bit. But then we have to go play.”
The 38-year-old Polian, whose coaching path has taken him around the country (Michigan State, Buffalo, Baylor, Central Florida, Notre Dame, Stanford, Texas A&M) since 1997, will become the 25th man to coach the Wolf Pack and the first to take the program to the Rose Bowl.
“I have to stay focused in the moment and on the task at hand,” Polian said. “I’m asking our players to do the same. I’m asking them to not get big eyes and to stay in the moment. So I have to do the same.”
That might be easier said than done. Playing a game in the Rose Bowl, after all, is a dream come true for the Pack players, most of which come from the state of California and fantasized of playing for the Bruins of the Pac-12 Conference in the Rose Bowl.
“Being from Southern California, UCLA obviously is one of the dream schools,” said Pack quarterback Cody Fajardo, who played at Servite High in Anaheim, Calif. “If they would have offered me (a scholarship) , I probably would have committed to them.”
“Playing in the Rose Bowl will be awesome,” said Pack defensive tackle Jordan Hanson, who played at Loyola High in Los Angeles. “Growing up as a kid, you always hoped to get an offer from USC or UCLA. I didn’t get an offer from those schools so the next best thing is to go down there and play them.”
“I’ve seen a lot of games in the Rose Bowl,” said running back Kendall Brock, who is from Fresno. “It’s just an honor to play in the Rose Bowl. I’ve dreamed about it my whole life.”
UCLA, which has played its home games in the 91,136-seat Rose Bowl since 1982 after moving from the Los Angeles Coliseum, is a 21-point favorite over the Wolf Pack. The Bruins, currently ranked No. 21 by the Associated Press, finished 9-5 last season in head coach Jim Mora’s first season and won the Pac-12 South Division. The Wolf Pack finished 7-6 in coach Chris Ault’s final two seasons in 2011 and 2012.
“You want to take your skills and play against the best in the country,” Brock said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”
The Wolf Pack admits that this is not just another game.
“Not a lot of players get a chance to play a game in the Rose Bowl,” Polian said.
The moment will not be lost on the Pack players.
“I know I’ll have some nerves early in the game,” Fajardo said. “I’ve asked some of our team leaders to help calm me down so I won’t go out there jittery.”
Once the Wolf Pack gets over its nerves and wide-eyed wonderment of playing in the Rose Bowl, the challenge of trying to beat one of the better teams in the country will sink in.
“We’re excited to go down and play in the Rose Bowl and I want our players to understand they are playing in a historic building,” Polian said. “But it doesn’t matter if we’re playing in the Rose Bowl or in a parking lot in downtown Los Angeles. We have to go out there and play a good football team.”
UCLA is led by sophomore quarterback Brett Hundley and senior outside linebacker Anthony Barr. The athletic Hundley (6-foot-3, 222 pounds) set UCLA single-season records last year for passing yards (3,740) and total offense (4,095 yards) and became the first UCLA quarterback to throw for over 300 yards in three consecutive games. The 6-4, 250-pound Barr had 13.5 sacks last year and 21.5 tackles for a loss.
“The thing about Brett is that he has shown the ability to handle pressure,” said Mora, a former head coach of the Atlanta Falcons and Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator. “On third down in the final two minutes last year he was at his best.”
“He can run and throw but he doesn’t run just to run, like Johnny Manziel would or Cody (Fajardo) would,” Polian said. “He runs to throw. He’s a very accurate passer. We’ll have our hands full.”
“He’s a dual threat and we have to contain him,” Hanson said. “But it won’t be a huge shock to go against a guy like him because we see it everyday in practice with Cody.”
Barr teams with junior Eric Kendricks (149 tackles in 2012) to give the Bruins two of the top linebackers in the nation.
“Anthony Barr is one of the best in the country,” Brock said. “Kendrick is from my region in Fresno so I know him a little. They are both very good. But we have the schemes to make plays against them.”
Barr, who played defense last year at UCLA for the first time, played at Loyola High in Los Angeles with the Pack’s Hanson.
“He played a little bit of everything in high school,” Hanson said. “He was a safety, a linebacker, a running back. He’s just a great athlete. He’s fast, strong, versatile.”
Barr’s sack of USC quarterback Matt Barkley ended Barkley‘s college career last year and helped give UCLA its first win over its top rival in six years.
“I know him from my time at Notre Dame,” Polian said. “I recruited him. I couldn’t believe it when (UCLA) put him at tight end. You look at him and you see a guy who is the perfect linebacker.”
Mora also has a lot of respect for the Pack’s Fajardo.
“He does some great things,” Mora said. “I’ve heard him compared to (former Pack quarterback) Colin Kaepernick and I can see that. He’s fearless, he’s physical and he can make all the throws.”
Mora said he’s not sure what to expect from the Pack offense. The Wolf Pack offense, which has operated in Ault’s pistol formation since 2005, will likely have some new wrinkles this year. Ault is gone and offensive coordinator Nick Rolovich, who grew up in Hawaii’s wide open run-and-shoot scheme, will be calling the plays.
“We’re going to play a team we don’t know very well,” Mora said. “We’re not sure how much pistol they will be in. We’re not sure how much spread they will be in. We have to guess a little bit on what they’ll do offensively.”
That is exactly the kind of confusion the Pack wants UCLA to be in Saturday night.
“We’ll show some different things,” Fajardo smiled.
Polian said the game, more than anything else, will be a giant learning experience for the Pack coaches and players.
“I want to see where we’re at,” Polian said. “This game is about us. It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. It’s about seeing what we can do and we’ll get a pretty good idea pretty quickly about where we’re at.”
Polian’s Pack will be very inexperienced on defense, especially at linebacker and in the secondary and will also feature two new running backs in Don Jackson and Brock.
“I want to see how physical we are, how we run to the ball, how fast we play,” Polian said. “I always say we want to be smart, fast and physical. This is our first test.”
This will be the ninth season since 1996 that the Wolf Pack will open the season on the road against a Pac-12 team. They are 1-7 in the previous eight games with the lone victory (31-24) coming last season at California.
“We’ll learn a lot of things from this game win or lose,” Wolf Pack offensive tackle Joel Bitonio said. “We’ll come out of it a better team.”