UNLV gave Boise State an unexpected gift this past Saturday when the Rebels upset Wyoming 69-66 in triple overtime. The Broncos, who lost to Wyoming 30-28 on Oct. 29, still need either San Diego State or New Mexico to beat the Cowboys in order to reach the Mountain West title game – but last week’s results were a big step in that direction. Also, after traveling to Hawaii and coming away with a dominant 52-16 win, Boise State moved ahead of Western Michigan in the College Football Playoff rankings, giving the Broncos the inside track to the Cotton Bowl.
The victory over Wyoming boosted the 4-6 Rebels’ bowl hopes. However, a second straight upset would be a major surprise, especially on the blue turf at Albertsons Stadium. Nevertheless, at 3-3 in conference play after last week’s win, UNLV has proven itself to be a factor in the race for the West Division crown.
UNLV at Boise State
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 18 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Boise State -28
Three Things to Watch
1. The Quarterbacks
Boise State QB Brett Rypien has been the best quarterback in the Mountain West this season. Rypien leads the league with 2,916 passing yards, 22 touchdowns, a 167.85 rating and a 65.0 percent completion rate. He has thrown just six interceptions in 297 pass attempts – only three of which have come in his last eight games. Over the last two weeks, Rypien is 34-for-42 passing (81.0 percent) for 557 yards and seven TDs without a pick.
Rypien also has arguably the top receiving duo in the conference at his disposal. Thomas Sperbeck leads the league with 1,023 receiving yards and is tied for the conference lead with 62 receptions. Sperbeck and Cedrick Wilson (44 receptions, 827 yards) each have nine touchdown receptions, though both are also capable of tossing TD passes. The pair is a combined 5-for-5 passing for 176 yards and four touchdowns (three of which belong to Sperbeck).
Unlike Rypien, who has started every game this season and 20 games in his first two years on campus, UNLV starter Kurt Palandech hasn’t been atop the depth chart consistently. In fact, Palandech made his first start of the season and only the fourth of his career last week against Wyoming. He also became the third player to start for the Rebels at quarterback this season.
However, despite the lack of consistency and experience, Palandech was tremendous against the Cowboys. The junior was named Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week after completing 20 of 32 passes for 252 yards and three touchdowns without an interception, as well as 157 rushing yards and another TD. Palandech is 30-for-55 passing (54.5 percent) for 413 yards and four touchdowns with one interception, and has 197 rushing yards and two TDs this season. Unfortunately, Palandech will be without his top target, Devonte Boyd (45 receptions, 746 yards, 4 TD), who will miss the remainder of the season due to injury.
2. The Running Game
Palandech and backup QB Dalton Sneed (355 rushing yards, TD) give the Rebels an advantage in the quarterback run game, and with Charles Williams (665, 3) and Lexington Thomas (632, 8) splitting carries in the backfield, UNLV has a well-rounded ground game. The Rebels rank fourth in the Mountain West with 252.7 rushing yards per game and they rolled up an impressive 401 on the ground against Wyoming. However, the Broncos have access to one of the nation’s top offensive players.
If not for prolific San Diego State running back Donnell Pumphrey, Boise State’s Jeremy McNichols would be the runaway favorite to win Mountain West Player of the Year. McNichols leads the nation with 22 touchdowns – including 18 rushing, which is tied for second nationally – and ranks fifth in the country with 1,369 rushing yards on a hefty 242 carries. The junior also has 428 receiving yards and four TDs on 31 catches.
3. Which Defense Can Stop the Run?
UNLV and Boise State rank in the middle of the pack in the Mountain West in rush defense with a nearly identical 165.4 and 165.5 rushing yards allowed per game, respectively. The Rebels have surrendered 4.3 yards per carry this season while the Broncos have allowed 4.4 yards per attempt, though Boise State has had more success keeping the opponents out of the end zone with just seven rushing touchdowns allowed. UNLV has surrendered 20 touchdowns on the ground alone.
While both units have decent numbers overall, both have struggled at times. Boise State held each of its first four opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards, but surrendered a massive 382 yards on 61 carries against New Mexico in Week 5. While the Lobos rank among the nation’s best in rushing offense, Boise State has allowed at least 215 rushing yards in three consecutive games, including 234 yards on 32 carries last week against Hawaii (season-worst 7.3 ypc). The previous week, San Jose State averaged 6.6 yards on 33 attempts.
UNLV suffered its own slump earlier this season when San Diego State, Hawaii and Colorado State each ran for at least 229 yards. However, the Rebels have played better over their last two games, limiting San Jose State and Wyoming to fewer rushing yards (132 and 151, respectively) and a lower yards per carry average (3.1 and 4.7) than Boise State allowed to each team earlier this season.
Both Boise State and UNLV are likely to have success running the football, though because of the inconsistency at the quarterback position and the loss of their top wide receiver, the Rebels are at a major disadvantage in the passing game. Brett Rypien has been hot in recent weeks, and despite holding opponents to the second-lowest completion percentage in the Mountain West (52.7 percent), UNLV ranks second to last in the league in pass defense (261.6 ypg).
Simply put, the Broncos are too balanced offensively, and have too many weapons for the Rebels. Expect Boise State to win big.
Prediction: Boise State 45, UNLV 21
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.