The Fresno State Bulldogs are on the rise — all the way, in fact, to No. 23 in the season’s first installment of the College Football Playoff rankings. It's their first appearance on the CFP listings and their first Top 25 showing since 2013, all thanks to six straight victories and a 7-1 record. Meanwhile, the UNLV Rebels are on the down slope, dropping their last five contests to enter this game with a paltry 2-6 mark.
And so the two Mountain West rivals will meet Saturday at Las Vegas’ Sam Boyd Stadium in what appears to be a clash of teams heading in completely opposite directions. UNLV comes in off of Week 9’s 50-37 loss to San Jose State, the Spartans' first victory of the season. On the other sideline, Fresno State is hot off a 50-20 beatdown of a solid Hawaii Rainbow Warriors squad. That puts the Bulldogs at 4-0 and alone atop the Mountain West’s West Division heading into this Week 10 affair against the division’s worst team. Yes, UNLV is dead last at 0-4 in conference action.
Fresno State at UNLV
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 3 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Fresno State -15
Three Things to Watch
1. 50/50 proposition
The Bulldogs scored 50 points last week. So why not another 50 this week? Especially since the Rebels have allowed an average of exactly 50 points in each of their last four contests. In fact, three of those ugly efforts came against the previously winless Spartans and two 3-5 clubs in the New Mexico Lobos and the Air Force Falcons. Against woeful San Jose State, UNLV allowed an eye-popping 555 yards.
Meanwhile, Fresno State comes in off a season-high 562 yards against Hawaii. So no matter how you slice it, 500 yards for Fresno State seems to be in the offing here.
2. Bully for the offense
If the Bulldogs do get 50 points and 500 yards, it’ll mainly be behind the arm and legs of senior QB Marcus McMaryion. He is the big dog in the Fresno State attack. On the year, the quarterback is 171-of-243 for 2,142 passing yards and 18 touchdowns against just two interceptions.
After a sluggish start in the first two games of the season, McMaryion has become a consistent threat under Bulldogs head coach Jeff Tedford. The pivot’s aerial numbers from Week 9 — 21-of-31 for 284 yards and four TDs against Hawaii — are pretty much standard fare as part of a six-week run that has pushed the QB and his crew into the College Football Playoff rankings.
But it’s not all McMaryion leading the charge, as receiver KeeSean (just give him the damn ball) Johnson is the newly minted all-time receptions leader at the Mountain West school. Johnson broke the Fresno State record of Davante Adams, now of the NFL’s Green Bay Packers, during last week’s triumph and boasts 234 all-time catches for the program. Johnson, a senior, now has 54 grabs for 761 yards and six TDs on the year.
Then there’s the sophomore running attack of Jordan Mims and Ronnie Rivers for Fresno State. Mims is consistent with his pop, leading the team with 301 rushing yards, while Rivers seems to be rounding in form after his first 100-yard rushing game last week (125 yards on 11 attempts).
3. Defense in the house
If the offense fails to click for Fresno State, it has a fallback option — and that’s to rely on a vaunted defense that currently is fourth best nationally in scoring defense. Tedford’s defense is allowing an average of just 13.5 points per contest — including only 33 combined points over the last four tilts.
Against UNLV, it would appear that per-game number is likely to drop even further. But then again, the Rebels have been running without the services of quarterback Armani Rogers, who’s had an injured toe hold him out of action since a 27-20 Week 4 loss to the Arkansas State Red Wolves. Rogers returned to practice early this week with the possibility of getting back at it Saturday against the Bulldogs. During his only run of action on the season, the sophomore rolled up 488 rushing yards and six TDs, making him a ground threat even if his passing numbers — 41.5 percent and 369 yards — are pretty anemic.
If Rogers is still a no-go, the ball goes back to sophomore helmsman Max Gilliam, who’s got a decent arm, having tossed 12 TDs in the last four contests. He’s got 1,021 passing yards on the campaign and teamed up last week with receiver Tyler Collins for 170 yards and an impressive four touchdowns. Collins is just a freshman who might have enjoyed his breakout game against San Jose State.
But getting the ball in the hands of senior running back Lexington Thomas appears to be UNLV’s best path to success. He’s put up 721 yards on 136 carries so far this season after racking up 1,336 yards last year. If Thomas can find some room to run, it’ll help keep the ball out of the hands of the dynamic Fresno State offense and give the hosts a chance to pull the upset.
Let's be realistic: The upset just won’t happen — not with Fresno State really finding its feet under Jeff Tedford’s tutelage. He is, after all, a highly regarded coach who has turned this team around from a one-win season two years ago. The Bulldogs just seem to be getting better as the campaign wears on. The only chance at seeing Tedford & Co. tumble is that this one in Vegas sets up as a trap game with the ever-strong Boise State Broncos on tap in Week 11 in a possible conference championship preview.
Still, even a flat-footed or unfocused pack of Dogs should be able to overcome a Rebels team that has looked disinterested in losing enough games to get head coach Tony Sanchez fired in the not-so-distant future.
Prediction: Fresno State 50, UNLV 12
(Top photo by Keith Kountz, courtesy of Fresno State Athletics)