The Rebels and Wolf Pack meet in the Battle for Nevada on Saturday
UNLV travels to Reno with with bowl eligibility on the line.
Here’s what UNLV has to do to return the Fremont Cannon to Las Vegas
What a long, strange road it has been for UNLV football in 2017.
Entering season three of the Tony Sanchez era, expectations among UNLV fans were certainly elevated, but still realistic. Bowl aspirations were openly talked about, as they should have been, particularly with redshirt freshman quarterback Armani Rogers getting his chance to line up under center for the Rebels. Having one of the top returning rushing attacks in the Mountain West Conference helps too.
Then the wheels fell off opening week of the season. The wheels, the doors, the lights, this vehicle was unrecognizable by the time the Howard Bison were done with the Rebels. On September 2nd, Mike London’s squad from the FCS served UNLV a 43-40 loss in Las Vegas. Depending on how you want to define such things, it was thought by some to be the biggest upset in college football history.
To wallow in the basement of the MWC for 2017 was reasonable to expect. But that Howard game was just the beginning of what has been, if nothing else, a memorable journey for UNLV.
After losing to the Bison, the Rebels won two of three in impressive fashion. They then dropped three straight in stomach-turning fashion. Then they won another two of three, needing a Rogers to Darren Woods Jr. touchdown pass with just over a minute remaining to steal one at New Mexico last week, 38-35.
Add it all up and the final chapter is a must read for any college football fan. The Rebels are 5-6 with one game left on the calendar. UNLV and archrival Nevada will kick off from Reno Saturday at 12:00pm PT. A Rebel win and the Scarlet and Gray are bowl eligible for the first time in the Tony Sanchez era. A loss and the Wolf Pack can enter the offseason on the high note that is derailing your rivals’ bowl plans. Here’s what UNLV need to do to capture the Fremont Cannon and its sixth win of 2017.
Air it out
In past previews I have implored the Rebels to keep the ball on the ground. A rushing attack like UNLV’s is formidable enough to keep them in most Mountain West games. Add to that a redshirt freshman, regardless of his potential, and I don’t think it’s a hard decision to put passing at a premium.
But this is Nevada.
The Wolf Pack are bad at defending the pass. Very bad. Even by MWC standards. They yield nearly 260 yards a game through the air, easily the worst in the conference. They’re not great against the run either, and that heavily favors the Rebs, but offensive coordinator Barney Cotton can feel more comfortable letting Rogers throw on Saturday than in any other game of the 2017 season.
Reckless the Rebels needn’t be. Seizing opportunity against a forgiving Nevada secondary could put this one away early, though.
Avoid the second-half letdown
It feels like I’ve said this one before.
For some reason the Rebels play a significantly different game in the second half than the first. It’s certainly a vast improvement from the recent history of the UNLV program when they routinely put together four quarters of bad football. Saturday with bowl eligibility and the Fremont Cannon on the line, there can be few mistakes.
A ten-point UNLV lead at the half last Saturday against New Mexico evaporated, and the Rebels needed late drama to steal the victory. It’s not fair to call what happened last week a collapse. What happened against Air Force, when UNLV blew a 27-point advantage was certainly a collapse. Sanchez should advise his team that the late game heroics were exhausted against the Lobos, and the Rebels should worker hard to protect any lead they’re able to build.
Start fast, end fast. On paper UNLV is the better team by virtually any metric you care to look at. There haven’t been many seasons where we are able to say that. The Rebels have the tools to build a substantial lead by the half if they want to. Holding onto that lead in the second half is another question.
I know that the conventional wisdom often dictates that games like these should be treated like any other. Following the plan, stay the course, generic coach-speak line number three.
But this isn’t like any other game, and this season has been UNLV’s strangest in a long time. It’s a roller coaster with plenty of peaks and plenty of valleys. The game against Howard was awful. The following month the Rebels gave Fresno State their only loss of the conference season. There’s no script here.
So get emotional. Want and expect to get bowl eligibility. Bad. Also hate Reno. A lot. I’m sure Nevada would love to keep UNLV out of a bowl game in what has been an otherwise very forgettable season for the Wolf Pack. There’s a lot at stake here, including the role that UNLV football is going to play in the ever-evolving landscape that is sports in Southern Nevada. The Golden Knights have a piece. The Raiders are sure to get theirs. The bar for generating interest in UNLV hoops isn’t particularly high. They win a couple and the buzz returns. But Rebels football has to accomplish a little bit more to generate interest.
Get fired up. Get Mike Hughes Jr. level fired up. Get that bowl game.