Fresno State is one victory away from becoming bowl-eligible for the first time since 2014 and on Saturday gets a banged-up UNLV team that is 2-5 and 1-3 in the Mountain West, ranked 10th and 11th in the conference in scoring defense and total defense and has not won a game at Bulldog Stadium since the 1984 California Bowl.
That presents as an opportunity.
The Bulldogs, just 1-11 a year ago, have to at least be curious how far they can extend this run and there are several in play.
▪ They are 4-0 in the Mountain West Conference.
▪ They have not allowed a touchdown for nine consecutive quarters, the longest streak in the nation.
▪ They have not allowed 200 yards in their past nine halves of football.
▪ They have forced at least one turnover in five games in a row, their longest streak since they went six games in a row at the start of the 2015 season.
▪ They have rushed for 199 yards or more in three games in a row, their longest streak since 2013.
And there is plenty to keep an eye on as they try to get to 5-0 in conference play.
Here are three things to watch:
1. Line play
A year ago, the Bulldogs offensive line was at times hard to watch. This year, they are hard not to watch.
A group led by center Aaron Mitchell has matured, is communicating and playing well together. Fans who keep an eye inside as the player with the football tucked squarely away scoots by will see some wondrous things going on.
In the Bulldogs’ victory at San Diego State, Josh Hokit scored on a 26-yard run to the right in the second quarter and on that play tackle David Patterson first got a piece of the Aztecs’ tackle then created a huge crease by bouncing outside and obliterating the cornerback. Guard Micah St. Andrew just manhandled that same tackle, first using him as a shield to bump off the middle linebacker and then driving him to the ground right on top of the cornerback that Patterson buried. Mitchell won, as well.
Earlier, on a 1-yard touchdown run by Hokit, St. Andrew and Patterson, working with tight ends Kyle Riddering and David Tangipa, cratered the Aztecs’ defense. The Bulldogs snapped the football from the left hash and when Hokit ran behind those blocks there was not a large object in a black jersey anywhere. Hokit had only a 190-pound freshman safety to run through to get into the end zone, and he did.
On the third Hokit touchdown, from 4 yards out, guard Netane Muti and tackle Christian Cronk cleared out the right side of the Aztecs’ defense.
That line is playing well. Fresno State in Mountain West play is averaging almost 2 yards more per carry than it did a year ago – it is at 5.09 yards per play, up from 3.12.
It has allowed just two sacks, and it allowed 2.25 per game last season. It also has allowed just 2.5 tackles for loss per game, and it allowed 6.4 last season.
2. Home game
UNLV has struggled with its pass defense this season, ranking ninth in the Mountain West. But when the Rebels have gone on the road they have really run into trouble, which means the Bulldogs’ Marcus McMaryion could be in for some fun.
UNLV has allowed almost 10 yards per pass attempt, not completion, away from home. It has allowed opposing quarterbacks to hit on 66.3 percent of their passes (57 of 86) for 807 yards with eight touchdowns and two interceptions and it has played road games at Idaho (eighth in the Sun Belt in passing offense), Ohio State (first in the Big Ten) and Air Force (12th and last in the Mountain West).
The issues start up front – UNLV has only six sacks this season, 11th in the MW and tied for 126th in the nation. But there is much more amiss with a unit that will have the misfortune of matching up against one of the best home passers in the country and a set of receivers in KeeSean Johnson, Da’Mari Scott and Jamire Jordan who in conference play have accounted for nine pass plays of 30 or more yards, second in the conference.
McMaryion at home this season has completed 69.4 percent of his passes (43 of 62) for 698 yards with seven touchdowns and only one interception. His efficiency rating in home games is 197.96, which is sixth-best in the nation.
For the trivia-minded, McMaryion’s home stats are considerably better than Derek Carr in 2013. In that record-setting season, Carr had an efficiency rating of 163.92 at Bulldog Stadium.
3. No run, no hide
The Bulldogs’ defense has been able to limit or take away what its opponent wants, likes and has to do in order to put points on the scoreboard in these past few games and it could get some help in doing that from the Rebels.
Quarterback Armani Rogers is doubtful to play after suffering a head injury last week in a loss to Utah State and if unable to go UNLV will have Kurt Palandech or Johnny Stanton to turn to, and both could end up playing.
Neither is adept as a passer, and even with the presence of an outstanding receiver in Devonte Boyd out there the Bulldogs could load up the box against a rushing offense that is second in the Mountain West averaging 281.3 yards per game.
The Rebels have run it about the same number of times as New Mexico, which runs triple option, and is averaging close to 30 more yards per game than the Lobos.
UNLV is averaging 44.6 rushes and 281.3 yards per game.
New Mexico is averaging 44.7 rushes and 251.6 yards per game.
The Bulldogs still will have to stay disciplined against the zone read it will see from the Rebels – one bust and UNLV could have a big play. It is leading the Mountain West with 24 explosive rushing plays of 20 or more yards.
It was a different opponent running a different offense, but Fresno State did that two weeks ago at home when taking apart New Mexico 38-0.
New Mexico quarterback Lamar Jordan had carried the football nine times in a loss at Boise State before he was knocked out of the game by injury, came back and carried it 10 times for 68 yards in a decisive win over Air Force. But Fresno State forced the football out of Jordan’s hand when he was running option. He had just four carries for no yards, and New Mexico rushed for only 109 yards on 37 plays. Its biggest gain on the ground was 14 yards – the shortest “long” run it has had in a game all year.
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
UNLV AT FRESNO STATE
- Saturday: 7 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium (41,031)
- Records: Bulldogs 5-2, 4-0 Mountain West; Rebels 2-5, 1-3
- TV/radio: AT&T, ROOT (AT&T UVerse 757, 1757; DirecTV 684)//KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: The Rebels lost at home to Utah State on Saturday, 52-28, after starting quarterback Armani Rogers was knocked out of the game with a head injury. UNLV has now allowed an average of 42.3 points over its past three games. … The Aggies rolled up 578 yards of total offense, 323 passing and 255 rushing. They converted 8 of 14 third downs, taking advantage of a soft spot in the UNLV defense. … The Rebels entered having allowed opponents to convert on 44.2 percent of their third downs, ranking 10th in the Mountain West. … UNLV does have one of the top running backs in the conference in Lexington Thomas, who racked up 161 yards and two touchdowns against Utah State and is averaging 125.3 yards per game with 12 rushing touchdowns.