The West Division race in the Mountain West Conference heats up on Friday night as the surging UNLV Rebels hit the road to take on the San Jose State Spartans. These two teams met last season in Las Vegas, with the Spartans outlasting the Rebels for a 27-20 victory.
Head coach Marcus Arroyo learned a lot about his team last Friday as UNLV (4-1, 2-0 MW) rallied from a 17-0 deficit to defeat New Mexico 31-20 in front of a crowd of 21,605 fans at Allegiant Stadium. The victory gave UNLV its first 2-0 start in conference play since the 2003 season. More importantly, it should give the program continued momentum on the recruiting trail, as bowl eligibility is well within reach with seven games to play. Doug Brumfield completed 24 of 33 passes for 233 yards with an interception and a rushing touchdown. The defense was lights out after a slow start, limiting the Lobos to 296 total yards overall and only three points in the second half. Austin Ajiake led the Rebels with 12 tackles and two tackles for a loss. Elijah Shelton had six tackles and a sack. Cameron Oliver's 21-yard interception return for a touchdown with 28 seconds left in the game put the exclamation point on the win.
San Jose State (3-1, 1-0) could hardly have started conference play better, posting a convincing 33-16 win over Wyoming last Saturday in Laramie. The Spartans turned a 12-10 game late in the second quarter into a runaway by outscoring the Cowboys 21-6. Chevan Cordeiro had a good all-around performance with three total touchdowns (two rushing) to go along with 314 passing yards. Elijah Cooks (8 rec., 177 yds.) was the big target through the air, while Kairee Robinson (20 att., 120 yds., TD) did damage on the ground. The defense took care of business, led by Kyle Harmon and his 11 tackles, as SJSU limited the home team to 253 total yards.
San Jose State has the upper hand in this series, holding a 19-6-1 vs. UNLV, including wins in 10 of the last 12 meetings. The Rebels haven't won in San Jose since 1993 (0-6 in that span).
UNLV at San Jose State
When UNLV Has the Ball
Setting the tone with the run is a great place to start this week for the Rebels. They enter this game ranked third in the Mountain West with 168.6 yards per game and 13 rushing touchdowns. But last season, UNLV managed just 95 yards and a score on 40 carries (2.4 ypc) in their 27-20 home loss to San Jose State. This season, the Spartans are yielding 152 yards per game (sixth in conference) on the ground but less than four yards per carry and have surrendered a total of three rushing touchdowns thus far. Individually, Louisivlle transfer Aidan Robbins has emerged as the Rebels' lead back. He's second in the conference with 506 rushing yards and is tied for fourth in the country with eight touchdowns.
An effective running game has made things easier for Brumfield, who leads the Mountain West in both passing yards (1,223) and touchdowns (eight) while completing 70.5 percent of his attempts. Last season, four different UNLV quarterbacks, including Brumfield, combined for 11 touchdowns and 14 picks while completing under 60 percent of pass attempts in 12 games. So the improved production from the position is a big reason why the Rebels are two wins away from bowl eligibility in early October.
The Spartans will try to stop the run, but increased production in the passing game will make this UNLV offense harder to contain. It will be up to defensive linemen Cade Hall and Viliami Fehoko to control the line of scrimmage and make some plays behind it, with linebacker Kyle Harmon getting in on the action and making plays all over the field. San Jose State has been stingy against the pass (154.8 ypg) with more interceptions (six) than touchdown passes (four) allowed so far, so the Rebels will probably need to find some balance to keep this defense on its toes.
When San Jose State Has the Ball
Cordeiro has been solid in his first four games with the Spartans after transferring from Hawaii. His passing numbers may not be prolific (269.5 ypg, 4 TDs), but he's taken care of the ball (no INTs) and has also contributed with his legs (four rushing TDs). Turnovers will be key for San Jose State, with UNLV tied for eighty nationally by generating 12 takeaways through five games. All but one of those have been interceptions (second only to USC), with Oliver responsible for three of them, including a pair of pick-sixes.
The Spartans may try and control the tempo of this game with their ground attack, but it's averaging 93.3 yards per game. Robinson is coming off of his best performance of the season, so perhaps he can build off of that. For its part, the Rebels are second in the Mountain West against the run (108.2 ypg allowed), but they surrendered 216 yards and three touchdowns on the ground to SJSU last season. If the Spartans get close to those numbers on Friday night, they will win going away.
UNLV must create negative plays to force the Spartans into long-yardage situations and force Cordeiro to beat them with his arm. The Rebels rank third in the conference in both tackles for a loss (31) and sacks (12), so they have been more effective in this respect than SJSU. Adam Plant Jr. has been the big playmaker up front for UNLV in the early going with 6.5 TFLs (tied for MW lead) and three sacks.
There is little reason to believe that this won't be a tightly contested game on Friday night. Both teams are playing good football and have the look of teams that have room to get even better in a parity-filled Mountain West. However, San Jose State will find a way to generate more consistency in the running game than UNLV, and that will be enough for the Spartans to win a one-score game and seize early control of the West Division.
Prediction: San Jose State 27, UNLV 20
Podcast: Week 6 Preview, Predictions, the Latest in Coaching Changes, and Picks Against the Spread
– Written by Scott Whittum, who is part of the Contributor Network.
*Price as of publication.