Lexington Thomas and the Rebels need a win in Albuquerque Friday night to keep their bowl hopes alive
Two Mountain West teams coming off disappointing results are scheduled to meet Friday night in Albuquerque. UNLV had its two-game winning streak snapped last week by BYU, meaning the Rebels (4-6, 3-3 MW) must win to keep their bowl hopes alive. New Mexico (3-7, 1-5) had its bowl hopes dashed by Texas A&M, losing 55-14 in College Station last week. It was the fifth consecutive loss for the Lobos.
UNLV at New Mexico
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 17 at 9:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: New Mexico -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Correcting the running game
In 2016, New Mexico used its option attack to gain an average of 350.0 rushing yards per game, which led the nation and helped UNM win nine games. The Lobos have seen that number dip to 226.1 this season, which is still good for 22nd in the FBS, but just not near as productive as last year. New Mexico has failed to reach 200 rushing yards five times this season, and has averaged 185.4 during its five-game losing streak. The team also led the country with 6.6 yards per carry last season, but that’s down to 5.0 (34th). Since the Lobos haven’t been able to run the ball, they haven’t scored as points either. Bob Davie’s team is averaging 20.3 points per game this season, which places New Mexico 11th in the Mountain West, after leading the way with 36.7 in 2016.
Inconsistency at quarterback has played a role in this decline in offensive production. Lamar Jordan, a dynamic runner, was injured against Boise State and the senior missed the following game against Tulsa. Even when healthy, Jordan has shared snaps with Tevaka Tuioti and Coltin Gerhart. All three saw action last week against Texas A&M.
UNLV also has struggled to run the football consistently in recent weeks. The Rebels averaged an impressive 281.0 rushing yards across the first seven games of the season, but have managed just 142.0 over the last three. Running back Lexington Thomas, who is tied for the conference lead with 15 rushing touchdowns and ranks third with 1,146 rushing yards, has been held under 100 yards on the ground in three straight games.
2. Stopping the run
Naturally, because both teams like to run the ball, stopping the run will be paramount. New Mexico has had some success slowing down opponents on the ground, giving up 130.1 rushing yards per game, good for fourth in the Mountain West and in the top 30 in the nation. The Lobos have held four opponents to fewer than 100 rushing yards this season, including two of their last three. Last week, Texas A&M gained just 63 yards on 23 attempts.
UNLV has been more generous on the ground, allowing 227.3 rushing yards per game. That places the Rebels 10th in the conference and 120th in the FBS. The Rebels have surrendered more than 300 rushing yards on three different occasions and gave up 265 to BYU last week.
3. Winning the turnover battle
Thanks in part to an option offense that requires a series of fakes and pitches, as well as traditional handoffs, New Mexico has lost 15 fumbles – second most in the country. Overall, the Lobos have turned the football over 26 times, which is tied for second worst nationally. Coupled with a defense that has forced just 11 takeaways, UNM ranks 127th (out of 129 FBS teams) with minus-15 turnover margin. As a result, New Mexico has won the turnover battle just twice this season – but the Lobos are 2-0 in those games.
UNLV has done a better job both taking care of the football (14 turnovers, including just five lost fumbles) and taking it away (16 takeaways, including 11 fumble recoveries), giving the team a plus-two turnover margin. However, winning the turnover battle hasn’t directly resulted in a victory on the scoreboard – the Rebels are just 2-3 in such games this season.
With bowl eligibility no longer an option, New Mexico will be playing for its seniors during the final home game of their careers Friday night. On the other sideline, UNLV will be motivated knowing one more loss would mean a fourth consecutive season without a postseason appearance.
Both teams like to run the football, and the Lobos have had success with a unique option offense that distributes the ball to several ball carriers while UNLV has relied heavily on talented running back Lexington Thomas, whose pace has slowed in recent weeks. New Mexico also has done a better job stopping the run, and the unit is playing well despite its losing streak. Unfortunately, the Lobos have been one of the worst teams in the country when it comes to ball security, which has played a big role in the declining rushing success, as well as put the defense in difficult short-yardage situations. Nevertheless, if the Lobos take care of the football, they can play spoiler.
Prediction: New Mexico 31, UNLV 30
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.