The term "moral victory" is one that people utilize a bit too much in college football. However, San Jose State (3-4, 1-2 Mountain West) and UNLV (0-6, 0-2) head into their matchup at Allegiant Stadium on Thursday night with some reasons to have confidence after battling San Diego State and Utah State, respectively, to the bitter end before coming up short. Now, with a combined 11 games left on the schedule for these two teams, this week presents an opportunity to ignite the rest of the 2021 season by picking up a win.
If you are a fan of defense, last Friday night was in your wheelhouse as San Jose State and San Diego State had a slugfest and combined for 12 points in regulation. Business picked up in overtime, as both found the end zone in the first extra period, but the Aztecs did it again, winning 19-13 in double overtime. Backup quarterback Lucas Johnson led the Aztecs to both of their scores in the overtime, courtesy of a pair of touchdown passes to Jesse Matthews. Penalties were a problem for the Spartans, who lost 101 yards on 12 accepted calls. That can't happen against a team like San Diego State — or anyone else for that matter.
Meanwhile, UNLV suffered another difficult loss as the Rebels couldn't hold onto a late fourth-quarter lead, allowing Utah State to rally for a 28-24 victory last Saturday night. The Rebels have been getting better under head coach Marcus Arroyo but have yet to receive the ultimate payoff of a win in 2021. The last three games have all been hard-fought contests against quality opponents (Fresno State and UTSA the others) decided by a combined 19 points. The bottom line is this team needs to learn how to finish games. Running back Charles Williams did his part and then some against the Aggies, piling up 221 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 27 carries. His highlights included a 75-yard touchdown run that led to a viral video that showed off the UNLV slot machine, which is without question the best sideline prop in college football right now.
San Jose State at UNLV
Kickoff: Thursday, Oct. 21 at 11 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: San Jose State -5
When San Jose State Has the Ball
The offensive line needs to assert itself from the opening snap and jump-start the running game against UNLV. Tyler Nevens ran for 74 yards on 28 carries and a touchdown last week, and he should find room to run against the Rebels. This will take pressure off of quarterback Nick Nash and give him easier throws from the pocket. Nash, who is filling in for an injured Nick Starkel, worked well with tight end Derrick Deese Jr. in the game against San Diego State. Deese is the Spartans' leading receiver and he added to his totals with six catches for 113 yards in the loss to the Aztecs. As mentioned earlier, limiting penalties, especially the self-inflicted mistakes, is something else that must happen beacuse this offense is not explosive enough to get behind the chains or put itself in long-yardage situations.
UNLV has done a nice job of creating turnovers this season with five interceptions through six games. Nash has thrown just two so far (in 75 pass attempts), so the Rebels just can't expect him to force a bad throw. Senior linebacker Austin Ajiake is coming off an 18-tackle performance against Utah State, and he is going to have to be all over the field on Thursday night to help his defense out once again. Winning the turnover battle will be important for UNLV as well, and there should be an opportunity for some takeaways with San Jose State second to last in the FBS rankings in that department (-10). For the season, the Spartans have thrown seven interceptions (Starkel has five of them) and lost seven fumbles.
When UNLV Has the Ball
There isn't a need to complicate the game plan if you are Arroyo. Feed Williams early and often. He is coming off of a huge game, and the more of the offensive burden he takes on, it makes things easier for freshman quarterback Cameron Friel. The position has been a bit of a revolving door for the Rebels, as four different signal-callers have been on the field due to injuries and other factors, but Friel has somewhat emerged from the scrum. He's completing 61.6 percent of his passes but also has just one touchdown compared to four interceptions. Those numbers must flip if this offense is going to become more than the Williams (aka Chuck Wagon) show.
And even Williams will have his work cut out for him on Thursday night against a San Jose State defense that is giving up 140.2 rushing yards per game. Colorado State gashed the Spartans for 217 yards a couple of weeks ago, but the Rams needed 53 carries to get there. Contrast that to San Deigo State, who managed just 70 yards on 36 carries (1.9 ypc) in a game that went to double overtime last week. Overall, SJSU is yielding 3.6 yards per carry and has surrendered a total of four rushing touchdowns in seven games. One key to the Spartans' defensive success against the Aztecs was getting off the field on third down, as SDSU converted just five of 16 such attempts. Creating some turnovers, especially against an inexperienced quarterback like Friel, would help, too, but San Jose State has just four so far this season, including a single interception.
The game will be closer than the oddsmakers expect since UNLV has the advantage of playing at home on a short week. Expect both teams to take a couple of series to get into a bit of a rhythm on offense. Williams is going to be the guy that pushes the Rebels over the finish line this week. Williams won't quite get to 200 yards, but he should easily clear the century mark and once again power UNLV's attack. His success on the ground also will lead to some explosive plays in the passing game. That will set up victory number one for the Rebels who finally find a way to get over the hump.
Prediction: UNLV 27, San Jose State 23
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