The UNLV Rebels, who earned Mountain West victory No. 1 and found some much-needed momentum last week, are set to face the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors at Aloha Stadium Saturday night. UNLV finally ended its six-game losing streak and improved its record to 3-7 overall and 1-5 in conference play with its 27-24 upset victory at San Diego State last weekend. Though the Rebels won’t qualify for a bowl game, the win helped quiet some of the grumbling surrounding head coach Tony Sanchez’s job security.
Hawaii was idle in Week 11, and the timing of the bye couldn’t have been better. The Rainbow Warriors have lost four games in a row, dropping their record to 6-5 overall and 3-3 in the Mountain West, and they allowed at least 40 points in all four. Though Hawaii became one of the first FBS teams to reach six wins this season, due to the scheduling quirks that come with its geography, UH needs a seventh victory to qualify for a bowl game. With only Saturday’s game against UNLV and the regular-season finale at San Diego State left to play, time is running out.
UNLV at Hawaii
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 17 at 11:59 p.m. ET
TV: Spectrum (in Hawaii), Stadium App (Outside Hawaii)
Spread: Hawaii -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. UNLV RB Lexington Thomas
UNLV running back Lexington Thomas was the star of the show against San Diego State and he has been the MVP of the UNLV offense throughout the 2018 campaign. Thomas ran for 133 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries against the Aztecs, good for 6.33 yards per carry. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound senior broke off a 75-yard fourth-quarter touchdown run that proved to be the game winner, and he would have tacked on a 61-yarder for a third score on the next drive had it not been called back for a holding penalty.
Simply put, Thomas has been one of the most consistent ball carriers in the conference throughout his career. Though just the second 100-yard performance for Thomas over his last seven games, Thomas’ 100-yard game last week was his fifth of the season and 17th with the Rebels. The 897 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns Thomas has gained thus far in 2018 bring his career totals to 3,381 and 38, respectively. And his receiving numbers are on the rise as well: Thomas has already caught a career-high 17 passes this year (16 of them across his last six games) for 125 yards.
2. Hawaii WR John Ursua
Hawaii’s offensive MVP and biggest impact performer this year is receiver John Ursua. No FBS player has more touchdown receptions this season than Ursua, whose 15 TDs are three more than his closest competitor. Ursua also leads the Mountain West in receptions (79) and receiving yards (1,161), putting him third and fourth, respectively, on the national leaderboard.
Like Thomas, Ursua’s consistency has been his greatest asset. The 5-foot-10, 175-pound junior led the nation with 667 receiving yards through the first six games of the 2017 season before a knee injury sidelined him for the rest of the season. This year, he’s been better than ever, posting 100 receiving yards or more in six games (pushing his career total to 11 such games), and catching at least one touchdown pass in nine of 11 games this year. Combined with quarterback Cole McDonald and fellow receiver Cedric Byrd, Ursua is a major reason the Rainbow Warriors rank second in the conference and No. 15 in the country in passing offense (308.7 yards per game).
3. Limiting big plays
With both offenses featuring an explosive playmaker, both defenses will be tasked with limiting big plays. And unfortunately, both UNLV and Hawaii have struggled to keep offenses in check. No Mountain West defense has allowed more plays of 20-plus (71) or 30-plus (34) yards than the Rebels this season. Likewise, no team has allowed more plays of 40 or more yards (20), 50 or more (9), 60 or more (6) or 70 or more (3) than the Rainbow Warriors.
Digging a little deeper should give both units greater cause for concern: Hawaii has surrendered 11 rushing plays of 40 yards or more, which ranks dead last in the Mountain West and worse than all but three FBS units. UNLV has allowed 21 pass plays of 30-plus yards, which is the second most in the conference and sits No. 115 on the FBS leaderboard.
Lexington Thomas has been a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season for UNLV. The Rebels have struggled mightily without injured star quarterback Armani Rogers, who still ranks second on the team with 488 rushing yards and six touchdowns despite not playing since September. Replacement Max Gilliam has shown improvement in recent weeks, but Rogers is one of the most talented and dynamic players in the league, and his loss has been felt heavily in each game he has missed.
Hawaii QB Cole McDonald has put up great passing numbers this season (3,163 yards, 32 TDs and six interceptions), but he has looked out of sync since missing the Wyoming game due to an undisclosed injury. In the four losses since, McDonald has completed just 51.4 percent of his passes for an average of 265.8 yards per contest (down from 350.0 yards per contest in six previous starts) with eight touchdowns and four interceptions.
Overall, the Rebels and Rainbow Warriors are similarly matched. And though UNLV enters with momentum, the potential hangover effect from last week’s upset victory could pose a problem. Plus, Hawaii has had an extra week of preparation; the Rainbow Warriors benefit from the home-field advantage that comes with a long flight across the Pacific; and bowl eligibility is on the line. Expect a close game, but for Hawaii to win.
Prediction: Hawaii 38, UNLV 34
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Top photo courtesy of @HawaiiFootball)