As Las Vegas attempts to recover from tragedy, the hometown UNLV Rebels are set to play host to San Diego State Saturday night. UNLV began the season on a sour note with a loss to FCS opponent Howard, but the Mountain West leaders in scoring (36.5 points per game) and yards per play (7.35) rebounded with two wins in their next three games, including a 41-13 victory last week over San Jose State in the conference opener. Also 1-0 in conference play, the Aztecs enter the game undefeated and ranked in both major polls, giving Rocky Long’s squad a strong chance to represent the Group of 5 conferences in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
San Diego State at UNLV
Kickoff: Saturday Oct. 7 at 10:45 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: San Diego State -10.5
Three Things to Watch
1. San Diego State RB Rashaad Penny
He flew under the radar last season as the backup to record-setting running back Donnel Pumphrey, but Penny is one of the best running backs in the country. Penny ranks second nationally with an average of 164.4 rushing yards per game, having totaled 823 yards and seven touchdowns on 116 carries — an average of 7.09 yards per rush. He also has found the end zone twice as a receiver and once more as a kick returner.
Penny has surpassed 100 rushing yards in each of the first five games of the season, including a 216-yard performance against Arizona State that was highlighted by a 95-yard TD run. The 5-foot-11, 220-pound senior also scored on a 99-yard kick return against the Sun Devils. And Penny is also capable of grinding out yardage, as evidenced by the 175 yards he gained on 32 carries in the 20-17 upset victory over Stanford.
He’s been so good that some opponents have stooped to unsportsmanlike levels to try and stop him. Last week, Penny was intentionally poked in the eye by a Northern Illinois linebacker on the bottom of a pile after being tackled on a kickoff return. Fortunately, Penny suffered no serious injury as a result and is expected to be at full strength (and full vision) against the Rebels.
2. UNLV RB Lexington Thomas
Penny is a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate, but his UNLV counterpart has been even more explosive this season in terms of per-carry average. Thomas (above, right) ranks fourth in the country in rushing (142.75 rushing yards per game). Overall, he has gained 579 rushing yards and nine touchdowns (only Oregon running back Royce Freeman has found the end zone more on the ground) on just 68 attempts — an average of 8.4 yards per carry.
Thomas has scored multiple TDs in all four games he has played this season, and he has broken off a run of at least 35 yards in all four contests as well. He has hit the century mark three times, falling short of 100 yards only against Ohio State. However, the 5-foot-9, 170-pound junior still managed to run for 7.0 yards per carry with two scores (including a 55-yarder) against the Buckeyes.
3. SDSU’s stingy defense
Both defenses will have their hands full Saturday as two of the best running backs in the country square off, but San Diego State is better equipped to slow down Thomas and the Rebels. The Aztecs lead the Mountain West in total defense (319.6 total yards of offense allowed per game) and second in scoring defense (21.3 points allowed per game). Conversely, UNLV has surrendered 489.8 yards of total offense and 31.5 points per game.
The Aztecs have fared well against the run this season, having allowed an average of 132.0 rushing yards (third best in the Mountain West) despite playing such potent rushing attacks as Stanford (and the nation’s leading rusher Bryce Love) and Air Force. Opponents have gained just 3.55 yards per carry. San Diego State has also been been a playmaking defense. The Aztecs have forced 12 turnovers (eight interceptions and four fumble recoveries) and lead the Mountain West and rank third nationally with a plus-9 turnover ratio.
The Aztecs have a far more impressive resume to date, having beaten a pair of Pac-12 opponents in addition to Air Force and Northern Illinois, while UNLV suffered one of the most embarrassing losses of the season in Week 1. Nevertheless, they're currently tied for first place in the West division of the Mountain West, and both have an opportunity to grab the inside track to the league title game. Both offenses can put points on the board, but the Aztecs also boast the best defense in the Mountain West, statistically speaking. As a result, SDSU is favored to win, and the Aztecs should take care of business on the road Saturday.
Prediction: San Diego State 28, UNLV 17
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Lexington Thomas photo courtesy of Getty Images)