Wolf Pack, meet Bears: Cal prepares to take field against Nevada

photo of football players coming out of the stadium before a game
Karen Chow/File

On Saturday, the Bears will finally take the field for a full slate of games once more as they welcome the Nevada Wolf Pack into the lair of the Bear. Not only will the Bears play a full season at last, but this Saturday marks the first time in more than a year that fans will be allowed into California Memorial Stadium.

“Having fans being able to attend as well, you feel the excitement throughout the facility,” said senior receiver Nikko Remigio.

The fans won’t be the only ones bringing energy to Strawberry Canyon on Saturday. The two teams taking the field will bring plenty of juice as well.

Both the Bears and the Wolf Pack will return with most — if not all — of their production from the 2020 season. Cal boasts nine “super seniors” including wide receivers Trevon Clark and Kekoa Crawford and five defensive starters who are taking advantage of the extra year of eligibility the NCAA granted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Similarly, Nevada will bring tons of experience and production, with perhaps one of the biggest names in college football to boot. Junior quarterback Carson Strong will take the field with the limelight set squarely on him, as he has emerged as a dark horse candidate for the first overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft.

Three of Strong’s top targets will also return alongside him. Seniors Romeo Doubs and Elijah Cooks are both big, explosive receivers for the Wolf Pack, with Doubs eclipsing 1,000 yards a year ago and Cooks putting up north of 900 yards in 2019, his last fully healthy season. Nevada will also bring along senior tight end Cole Turner, who surpassed 600 yards across only nine games in 2020.

“You’ve got to go into every game prepared,” said senior linebacker Cameron Goode. “Fully respecting your opponent, knowing they’re DI too, they can make plays.”

Saturday night will be a true slugfest, with strength facing strength in prime time. Cal’s historically strong defense will have its work cut out for it against a Nevada team looking to showcase its offensive firepower and propel its quarterback further into discussions surrounding top picks in the 2022 NFL draft.

“Strong does a nice job of distributing the ball,” said Cal defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon. “This is a very, very talented group coming in. They can go all across the board.”

The two teams represent two sides of the same coin. On one side, the Bears will look to lean on a smothering defense and a powerful run-first West Coast offense that keeps control of the clock and methodically picks defenses apart as it drives down the field. Cal also has the luxury of being able to lean on Pac-12 levels of talent, boasting more blue chip recruits than the Wolf Pack.

On the other side lies a Football Championship Subdivision team waiting for an opportunity. Nevada is by no means a powerhouse, but as Goode said, it is Division I too. Where Cal plays smash-mouth, in-your-face football, Nevada is your prototypical spread offense, ready to whip the ball out wide at a moment’s notice. (Strong threw the ball 27.6 times per game last season.)

The Bears have historically dominated this matchup, but the last two meetings have resulted in wins for the Wolf Pack, in 2010 and 2012.

“We haven’t beaten them the last two times we’ve played them, but I kind of think it’s irrelevant,” Remigio said. “We’re a new team, a new program.”

For outside observers, Nevada’s FCS status makes it appear to be an easy win for Cal, but there are no such things as “easy wins” in college football. Come Saturday night under the lights, the whole world will see what these two teams have in the tank for each other.

And if Cal emerges victorious, the world will know that Memorial Stadium remains Bear territory.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Nevada is part of the FCS conference. In fact, it is part of the Group of 5 conference.

Jesse Stewart covers football. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @jessedstew.