Cal Football vs. Nevada Wolf Pack: Q&A with Duke Ritenhouse and Nathan Shoup

Get an inside look into the Nevada Wolf Pack from the Reno Gazette-Journal and The Reno Slant

The California Golden Bears kick off the 2021 college football season against the Nevada Wolf Pack on Saturday, Sept. 4, at 7:30 p.m. Pacific.

While the Golden Bears lead the series 32-6-1, the Wolf Pack of the Mountain West Conference has won the last two match-ups in 2012 and 2010.

Chase Garbers begins his fourth season as California’s starting quarterback on Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021. (Photo Courtesy: Cal Athletics via Andrew Madsen / KLC fotos)

We asked Duke Ritenhouse, the Nevada Wolf Pack Athletics reporter from the Reno Gazette-Journal, and Nathan Shoup, the host of the award-winning Nevada Wolf Pack podcast The Reno Slant, everything a Cal fan might want to know.

Who do you think will have a bigger impact in the upcoming season: Elijah Cooks or Romeo Doubs?

Duke Ritenhouse: As receivers, it’s basically a dead heat, but Romeo Doubs also returns punts, so I’ll give him a slight edge. Both are potential game-breaking athletes, especially if left to single-coverage.

Romeo Doubs trivia: He scored the first time he touched the ball as a college player with a punt return vs. Portland State.

Nathan Shoup: Elijah Cooks was the guy in 2019. Doubs was the guy in 2020.

Doubs embarrassed a few secondaries last year, particularly in the season, before being held below 100 receiving yards in each of the final four games. He’s not going to surprise anyone this fall as teams will scheme for him. That opens the door for guys like Cooks and the rest of this incredibly deep wide-receiver room.

Listeners of The Reno Slant are well aware of my ability to sit on the fence. But gun to my head, I’ll go with Doubs. He’s roommates with Carson Strong and stands to make a lot of money if he can clean up his route running and become a little more physical.

What do you think about the defense transfer players Nevada has brought in, like Isaiah Essissima, Bentlee Sanders or Chris Whittaker?

Ritenhouse: Only Sanders cracked the starting line-up to begin the season, which is a bit of a surprise. Nevada Head Coach Jay Norvell has praised the transfers consistently during fall camp, so perhaps it’s a case where he plans to rotate them in fairly frequently. (Whittaker entered the transfer portal after spring camp.)

Shoup: Nevada Head Coach Jay Norvell brought in a bunch of Power Five transfers this offseason, and Sanders (staring nickel) and Essissima (backup corner) were the only two to break the initial two-deep depth chart.

This is a talented Nevada team that was one bad half of football against San Jose State from advancing to the Mountain West title game. And with almost everyone back this year, there weren’t many spots up for grabs.

Sanders out of the University of South Florida seems most likely to make a significant impact, but it’s tough to get too excited until you see what transfers look like in a new scheme. Again, I’m sitting on a fence.

Cal’s secondary filled with redshirt seniors has shut down a number of 1st and 2nd round NFL Draft picks. What makes you think Nevada’s receivers will fare any better?

Ritenhouse: I’ll quote Nevada quarterback Carson Strong: “They can’t double-cover everybody.”

The Cal secondary versus the Wolf Pack receiving corps is really a strength-meets-strength situation — both are excellent units. My feeling is that Nevada will have some success due to Strong’s accuracy. He is extremely precise and careful with the ball.

Shoup: If you want to make a case for Nevada faring better than past offenses against this secondary, you could point to the fact Nevada played nine games last year to Cal’s four. It also got the extra practices with the bowl game. The Pack has simply played much more football over the past year than the Golden Bears.

Does that automatically equate to unparalleled success against a tough Cal secondary? Probably not.

But this is also one of the best receiving groups in the nation with a potential first-round quarterback in Carson Strong.

How optimistic are you about Carson Strong’s Heisman Trophy hopes?

Ritenhouse: Carson Strong will not win the Heisman Trophy. Nevada’s best quarterback season ever (Colin Kaepernick, 2010) still only resulted in an eighth-place finish. The Heisman is not an award designed for Mountain West players.

Shoup: Not very. While Carson Strong checks a lot of boxes and has bonafide threats at deep, intermediary and underneath levels, he could put up crazy numbers this year and lead Nevada to its first Mountain West title, but he’s not winning a Heisman. That doesn’t happen if you play at Nevada.

Do you expect Brandon Talton to convert a difficult field goal attempt when it matters most?

Ritenhouse: Absolutely. Not only from his own leg strength and mental toughness but because Nevada will likely play in a number of close games this season.

Shoup: Talton was a freshman walk-on when he hit the walk-off 56-yard field goal to beat Purdue at Mackay Stadium in Reno in the 2019 opener. He was given a scholarship that night and only validated it with his consistency. He did miss a few gimmes late last year, and the special-teams nerds among us will be paying attention.

You can’t ask for more than a college kicker; he’s 36-for-43 in his two-year career. You’ll always be nervous when it comes down to a pressure kick though because #CollegeKickers.

What impressions does Nevada have of Cal, both the team and the Cal faithful?

Ritenhouse: It’s basically universal respect, but with an obvious desire to knock off the team from the bigger conference. Nevada’s players know that beating a Pac-12 team on the road is a pretty big deal, especially in a case where the other team is literally just right down the freeway.

Another factor is the amount of Californians that Nevada carries on its roster every season. Some Wolf Pack players will have played with or against some Cal players, either in high school games, or at camps, or maybe even Pop Warner games. That ramps up the rivalry aspect a bit.

I’m not sure the players have much thought for Cal backers one way or the other. It seems to be a fairly respectful situation, without much trash-talking or other unpleasantness from the two fanbases. It’s not like Cal is UNLV or Boise State, which are clearly bastions of evil.

Shoup: The Cal defense is impressive, and the offense is rather unimpressive. Nevada fans are entering this one confidently.

Which player on offense should Cal fans know about?

Shoup: Cole Turner. Turner entered the program as a wide receiver before Nevada Offensive Coordinator Matt Mumme moved Turner and his 6-foot-6, 245-pound frame to tight end last year.

He proceeded to catch 49 passes for 605 yards and nine touchdowns.
I generally hate goal-line fades. Turner’s dominance with that route last year changed my mind — for now.

Which player on defense should Cal fans know about?

Shoup: Dom Peterson. Peterson was a disruptive defensive end his first two years at Nevada before moving to defensive tackle last year.

He has 22 career starts with 12 sacks and 13.5 tackles for loss. At 6-foot tall, 315 pounds, he’d be a legit NFL prospect if he were a couple of inches taller.

Who’s one under-the-radar or X-factor player who could swing this game for you?

Ritenhouse: Look for Nevada defensive end Sam Hammond. He is tall (6-foot-5) and quick but is overshadowed often by inside lineman Dom Peterson.

Hammond has really developed with Nevada, going from walk-on to team captain. And he’s from Yerington, Nev., so he’s totally locally-grown. I would not be at all surprised if a Hammond sack or fumble recovery changes the game on a key series.

Shoup: Nevada punter Julian Diaz. Cal wants to slow this game down, and that typically equates to field position.

Diaz led the Mountain West with a 46.3 yards per punt average last year with only one touchback. He was arguably the best punter in a conference known for producing punters.

What does Nevada need to do to win the game against Cal?

Ritenhouse: Two things: 1. Win the line of scrimmage; 2. Establish a running game.

Although Nevada’s Air Raid offense begins with the word “air,” the Wolf Pack is always at its best when the run-pass ratio is close to 50-50. And that only works if the line is doing its part, which hasn’t always been the case. The line play did begin to improve last season, and just about everyone on the two-deep chart is a returning veteran.

The other side of the ball is key as well. Nevada feels it can cover Cal’s receivers, but that won’t mean too much if the Wolf Pack’s D-line is getting blown off the ball consistently.

Shoup: Score more than 24 points.

Cal has lost 14 straight games when allowing more than 24 points. This week, I said on the podcast if the game goes over the total (52.5 points), Nevada wins. If it goes under, Cal wins.

What does Cal need to do to win the game?

Shoup: Win defensively in the red zone. Nevada was not a good red zone team last year (touchdowns on 19-of-38 possessions), and Cal is in a good spot if that trend continues Saturday.

How do you see the Cal v. Nevada game going?

Ritenhouse: Nevada 27, Cal 24, with two Talton field goals in the fourth quarter.

Shoup: Nevada played a couple of good defensive secondaries last year (Hawaii and San Diego State in particular), and both games were slugfests. The Pack lost on the Islands 24-21 and snuck past the Aztecs in Reno, 26-21.

It feels like this game will stay in the 20s and come down to the final few minutes.

Who do you most want to punch in the face?

Shoup: I only like writing for outfits that take themselves seriously, so I’m glad that box is checked. The head coach of any team that beats Nevada this year.

This interview was edited lightly for length and clarity.