Don't let the zero in the win column throw you off. Blake Anderson says his Utah State Aggies won't be doing that when they play the winless UNLV Rebels in Mountain West action Saturday night at Allegiant Stadium.
"They're going to win some games," Anderson told reporters of UNLV. "We just don't want it to be this week."
Aggies safety Hunter Reynolds agreed.
"They play hard," Reynolds told reporters. "They've been in a lot of close games. They are definitely not an opponent we are taking lightly."
Indeed, if it happens, Utah State could well become the first team to fall to the Rebels on the year. Not that it would surprising, given the direction of both these teams lately.
The Rebels, despite the ugly 0-5 start, are on upswing, having pushed strong conference foes in their previous two games. They lost to the host Roadrunners UTSA 24-17 ahead of last week's bye, falling short after turning the ball over on downs late in enemy territory. And the week before that, they lost to conference rival Fresno State Bulldogs in a 38-30 nail-biter.
Meanwhile, the Aggies — also coming off a bye in Week 6 — have stumbled in their last two games after a sparkling 3-0 start to the season. Included was a Week 6 loss to the then-unbeaten BYU Cougars in 34-20 fashion.
Yes, that decision didn't come as a shock. However, Utah State has enjoyed early-season success under Anderson in his first year at the helm, especially on the road, having upended both the Washington State Cougars and the Air Force Falcons, and losing two straight has suddenly dropped the Aggies to a 3-2 record.
Thank goodness that the bye came along when it did.
Utah State at UNLV
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. ET
TV: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Utah State -7
When Utah State Has the Ball
The bye gave extra days of rest to a black-and-blue Aggies offense. Quarterback Logan Bonner hyperextended his knee and tweaked a thigh injury against BYU. Star running back Calvin Tyler Jr. and center Falepule Alo also came away injured from that loss.
"Right now, probably the biggest issue for us might be Pule," Anderson told reporters of Alo. "He got his hand banged up pretty good, and it may need some work, which could keep him out for a while. But the other guys are really bumps and bruises."
The Aggies really need Tyler, who was the Mountain West's top rusher until BYU held him to just three yards on 12 carries, to return to health and find his way to early-season form. Despite the disheveled performance two weeks ago, the junior still boasts impressive numbers — 79 carries, 417 yards for an average of 5.3 yards per run, and four touchdowns.
And even without Alo, the Utah State offensive line should be able to have its way with a troubled UNLV defensive line, creating some room for the Aggies' running game, putting behind those paltry 31 rushing yards it limped to two weeks back.
If nothing else, the Rebels defense has to discover a pass rush that's been absent to push Bonner into trouble. With six interceptions thrown, the junior signal-caller isn't always the most efficient leader, although his 91-of-157 passing for 1,235 yards and nine TDs prove that he's got the dynamics to lead the Aggies.
When the offense is clicking on all cylinders, Utah State has been fairly dynamic, piling up nearly 500 yards a game and scoring nearly 30 points per contest.
The Bonner-to-Deven Thompkins connection has been a big reason why. The senior receiver has 38 catches — good for ninth in the country for 127.8 yards a game (fourth) and four TDs.
The attack can be potent, especially against a UNLV team that's giving up 36 points on average.
When UNLV Has the Ball
Who will be under center for the Rebels on Saturday? It seems like it should be freshman Cameron Friel, given his success the last few games.
Friel has been making the most of his time — 42-of-65 for 512 passing yards — with early-season starter Doug Brumfield sidelined. Against UTSA, Friel was 25-of-37 for 307 and a TD toss. Unfortunately, he's still learning on the job, as evidenced by the three interceptions, and he came away banged up from Week 5.
UNLV head coach Marcus Arroyo says both freshmen quarterbacks should be ready come game time, though. Tate Martell, a well-traveled transfer, also is in the QB mix after getting some field time following a few weeks in a walking boot.
"To see how much he can do will be the next piece of this week, as well," Arroyo told reporters of Martell. "At the quarterback position, we're touch and go, but we think we've got enough pieces to facilitate some movement."
Fortunately, the UNLV QBs can lean on senior running back Charles Williams, who is making a dent in defenses. Williams has 404 yards and three TDs on 94 carries for a healthy average of 4.3 yards per haul.
"He can do everything they need," Anderson told reporters. "He is not a liability catching the ball and is not a liability protecting. He can do all those things and then carry the ball as he does."
The Rebels need all of it from Williams, since they average less than 19 points and 285 total yards per game.
But Utah State isn't exactly lighting up the night defensively. It's allowing 30 points per game, despite some strong play from linebacker Justin Rice, who has three interceptions on the year. A big reason why is the Aggies aren't getting to the quarterback either.
Time in the pocket for any one of those three QBs sent out by Arroyo could spell the difference in the game, especially when they have the kind of pass-catching talent brought to the field by Steve Jenkins.
The junior wideout has recorded 14 catches for 217 yards and two TDs and is coming off a five-grab, 114-yard day — including an early 63-yard TD — against UTSA.
Given the recent history of both teams, the early part of the game does favor Jenkins and UNLV, so perhaps Arroyo should be thinking attack quickly through the air in order to get the jump on Utah State.
It would bode well for a side that's starting to find some rhythm in its efforts.
"We're right there," Williams told reporters. "We're just two to four plays away from getting where we want to be as a team. I think the execution part is getting better each week. We've just got to be dialed in on those critical downs or those situational moments."
A positive decision would put Williams and Co. not only in the win column but tied with Utah State at 1-1 in Mountain West action.
And really, it's not much of a stretch — they are trending upwards these days, while the enemy has lost a step or two — for them to check in with that win, even though all-time the Aggies boast a 17-7 mark in head-to-head meetings.
Home-field advantage at spectacular Allegiant Stadium should help UNLV out, as well.
Prediction: UNLV 26, Utah State 24
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