Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick vs Mychal Kendricks. Or Keith Browner. Or Jarred Price... The Nevada pistol offense is one of the most intricate and prolific in college football. One of its principal tenants is the zone read, which involves leaving one defender unblocked so the rest of the offensive line can try and double team the rest of the defensive line. Browner or Price are likely to get read the most, but don't rule out Kendricks, who'd be a beast to handle for any offensive tackle. Kaepernick might be athletic enough to handle him one-on-one.
Against Cal's 3-4, it'd make the most sense for the linemen to leave the outside linebacker unblocked. Then, let Kaepernick read him, and take advantage of bad discipline or poor footspeed. It'll be an intriguing chess match that'll go a long way to deciding how effective Nevada's offense is, because if the unblocked defender can maintain solid footing between both Kaepernick and the running back, that would seriously disrupt the read option and a huge facet of Nevada's offensive attack. Discipline will be the key.
Nevada's offensive line vs Cal's defensive line. In stark contrast to their crazy backfield, the Wolf Pack line is almost purely pro-style. They run a lot of inside zone and a variation of outside zone, emphasizing motion and agility and getting to the next level. And they have a solid group--three returning starters (John Bender, Jose Acuna, Chris Barker) and two reserves (Jeff Meads at center, Steve Haley at tackle) moving ably into open slots.
Those expecting Cameron Jordan, Kendrick Payne and Ernest Owusu to just bowl over Nevada's front five are in for a rude awakening. While the rotation of Deandre Coleman, Trevor Guyton, Aaron Tipoti and Derrick Hill might slowly wear down the Wolf Pack offensive line over the course of the game, how well Nevada can open up holes inside could be the springboard for the rest of their offense to flourish. Watch out in particular for Barker, a rising star who could help out in sealing off the nose tackle or the defensive end. This line is big, bulky, and they aren't going to let Cal's front seven walk all over them.
If they can open up running lanes for tailback Vai Taua, Cal's job of holding Nevada's offense down becomes a lot harder.
Cal's offensive tackles vs Nevada's defensive ends. If Nevada has one strength on their porous defense, it's their pass rush, particularly generated by their two excellent ends. Dontay Moch is an athletic freak, and he could seriously give Donovan Edwards and Matt Summers-Gavin headaches at right tackle with his unbelievable speed off the edge. Look for the Bears to use Shane Vereen to knock Moch off his edge rush, or use tight end support from Spencer Ladner or Anthony Miller to try and neutralize that threat.
Ryan Caulson could cause his own set of problems on the other side, but Mitchell Schwartz should be able to handle his own. The big question is whether Cal's interior offensive line is up to the task of mauling Nevada's defensive tackles in the running game and limiting the outside pass rush as a relevant factor.
Nevada's punter Brad Langley vs Cal's punt returner Jeremy Ross. Langley booted all four of his punts in the first game of the season an average of 50 yards! Not one of those was returned by an Eastern Washington special teams player. And you thought Bryan Anger was impressive.
If Nevada's offense stalls, field position could be important to pin Cal's offense back, so if Langley can keep the ball long and away from Ross (who is becoming a pretty solid returner), then that'll force the Bears to have long fields and long drives to get into the other end zone. All those yards help, especially when trying to pin down a Golden Bear offense that can put points up just as quickly as the Wolf Pack can.