Falcons, Rebels get together in Las Vegas for the Mountain West's version of "Friday Night Lights"
The Air Force Falcons and UNLV Rebels are set to square off in a Mountain West showdown Friday night in Las Vegas. Though bowl hopes remain high, both squads are still searching for their first conference victory of the season. Air Force fell to 2-4 overall and 0-3 in league play after losing to San Diego State 21-17 last week. The Falcons led most of the game but couldn’t hold on in a rain-soaked, lightning-delayed trip to San Diego. UNLV, also 2-4 with a 0-2 record in conference play, brings a three-game losing streak into the matchup. The Rebels suffered a 59-28 loss to Utah State last week — the second straight game in which UNLV surrendered at least 50 points.
Air Force at UNLV
Kickoff: Friday, Oct. 19 at 10 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Air Force -11.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The quarterbacks
Both Air Force and UNLV have suffered recent injuries at the quarterback position. Donald Hammond III made his first career start two weeks ago against Navy and became the third Falcons QB to start a game in 2018. Hammond led the Falcons to an impressive 35-7 win in the best all-around game of the season for the team, but he suffered a potentially serious injury last week against the Aztecs. As a result, we’ll likely see Isaiah Sanders under center against UNLV. Sanders has appeared in five games this season and has thrown for 340 yards with one touchdown and two interceptions. Sanders has also gained 175 yards with two touchdowns on the ground.
UNLV starter Armani Rogers, one of the most physically talented quarterbacks in the Mountain West, suffered a significant toe injury in the loss to Arkansas State and hasn’t played since. Rogers is expected to miss at least six weeks of action. The injury elevated Max Gilliam to the top of the depth chart. Gilliam has completed just 47.2 percent of his passes for 373 yards and five touchdowns with two interceptions in five games.
2. The running game
The biggest impact of the Rogers injury has come in the UNLV running game. Though the Rebels lead the league in rushing offense (257.2 yards per game), Rogers ranks second on the team with 488 rushing yards with an impressive average of 6.87 yards per carry, and he is tied for the team lead with six rushing TDs. Gilliam is not fleet of foot, having been saddled with minus-51 rushing yards on 20 attempts (12 of them sacks). The team’s leading rusher and one of the best players in school history, Lexington Thomas, exited the Rebels’ loss to Utah State with a head injury, but he has been cleared to play so expect to see plenty of him against the Falcons. Thomas leads the team with 552 rushing yards and he has scored six times this season.
Option-heavy Air Force, of course, relies heavily on the running game as well. The Falcons lead the Mountain West and rank 14th nationally with an average of 248.0 rushing yards per game. Though Sanders has been a less effective runner than Hammond (who leads the team with five rushing scores) or former starter Arion Worthman on average, the junior ranks third on the team with 175 rushing yards and has scored two rushing TDs. Cole Fagan leads the squad with 342 rushing yards and has scored twice. Kadin Remsberg has 256 rushing yards and a TD while averaging a healthy 5.57 yards per carry.
3. Stopping the run
With both teams relying so heavily on the run, rushing defense will be very important. Air Force ranks second in the Mountain West and No. 8 nationally having held opponents to 101.17 rushing yards per game. The Falcons have also limited opponents to 3.16 yards per carry. The Falcons have accomplished those numbers despite playing some very talented rushing attacks. Air Force held FAU to 54 yards and 1.86 yards per carry, limited Navy to 129 rushing yards and 3.15 yards on average, and last week bottled up San Diego State for just 84 yards on the ground and 2.47 yards per attempt.
Conversely, UNLV has struggled mightily stopping the run. The Rebels rank last in the conference and 114th in the country in rushing defense against FBS competition (230.8 rushing yards allowed per game) and have surrendered at least 197 rushing yards and one touchdown or more to every FBS opponent.
Having played at San Diego State last Friday, Air Force has had an extra day to prepare for the Rebels. However, playing back-to-back road games is certainly a disadvantage. And, though UNLV has been hampered by injuries this season, the Falcons are also not fully healthy. If Donald Hammond can play, it would be a huge boost, but that seems doubtful.
Air Force ranks among the nation’s best at stopping the run, which matches up very well because the Rebels are so reliant on the ground game. In fact, the ability to stop the run is the biggest edge for the Falcons. It should be close, but expect Air Force to come away with a victory.
Prediction: Air Force 31, UNLV 24
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.