Cowboys, Rebels meet in Las Vegas on Black Friday
But the Rebels are still trying to piece together enough of a team to make it work for them after in-house COVID-19 issues canceled their game last week.
"They're not canceling the game yet," UNLV head coach Marcus Arroyo told reporters. "So we're practicing."
So are the Cowboys, which haven't had issues in Laramie but have been impacted by the pandemic. COVID outbreaks with Utah State last week and Air Force two weeks ago canceled both Mountain West affairs, meaning Wyoming has gone without a game since Nov. 5.
"It's been pretty frustrating,” Wyoming offensive lineman Latrell Bible told reporters. "I'm not going to lie."
"While coaches maybe enjoy practice, for players, after a while, practice is practice," Cowboys head coach Craig Bohl told reporters. "It's, 'Coach, we want to play.' So this is going to be great that we're going to be able to play this week. At least right now, that's what things are looking like."
Wyoming, with a 1-2 record, is anxious to get in the win column on the road. Both losses have come on the road — 34-24 to Colorado State three weeks back and to Nevada in overtime in the 37-34 opener. The Cowboys' only win came at home over Hawaii, 31-7.
Meanwhile, UNLV would just like to secure a win anywhere. The Rebels are 0-4, and COVID has kept them from getting in proper preparation together.
"We moved forward with working against each other because we hadn't had a chance to turn over the Wyoming film," Arroyo told reporters. "A lot of things have to happen prep-wise before you start planning for the next team."
Their two road losses have come to strong Mountain West sides in San Jose State two weeks ago and San Diego State in the opener.
Wyoming at UNLV
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 27 at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: Wyoming -16.5
When Wyoming Has the Ball
All this practice is perhaps a blessing in disguise for redshirt freshman Levi Williams. The young quarterback should only benefit from more time getting familiar with the offense. But it's true that you can't replace game experience.
"There's an old saying — third time's a charm," Bohl told reporters. "This is the third gameplan we've composed (with hopes of using it), and our players have done a great job in staying focused."
While the focus is on Williams, who is 44-of-80 for 660 passing yards with one touchdown and two interceptions on the season — including a break-through last time out with 321 passing yards — everybody's eyes are always on running back Xazavian Valladay.
The junior is among the conference's top rushers, with 397 yards on 82 carries for a 4.8-yard average. Valladay had 28 hauls for 147 yards and one touchdown against Colorado State as part of a 465-yard game put up by the entire team.
In the aerial attack, Williams' top target last time out was senior receiver Ayden Eberhardt, as he snagged seven passes for 132 yards to give him 11 receptions for 173 yards on the year. He complements Valladay (11 catches for 76 yards) and freshman sensation Isaiah Neyor (six catches for 179 yards) in an ever-improving pass game.
It's all amounted to 406.3 yards and 29.7 points per game, both among the best in the Mountain West. But the offense needs to improve in a few areas, having allowed nine sacks in three games and converting only 32.6 percent on third down, which ranks 109th in the FBS.
When UNLV Has the Ball
Expect a two-headed QB attack to continue for the Rebels. Justin Rogers and Max Gilliam are both getting playing time with neither clearly pulling way.
In the loss to San Jose State, sophomore Rogers got the bulk of the snaps, raising the question of whether there's a changing of the guard at the quarterback position. Rogers went 12-of-18 for 162 yards and one touchdown, while senior Gilliam was 7-of-10 for 62 yards with an ugly 12.0 passer rating.
But the enemy this week expects a bounce-back from Gilliam and continued growth by Rogers. And the Cowboys could have their hands full, as they rank ninth in the Mountain West with 261.7 passing yards allowed per game.
"Marcus is a quarterback guru," the Wyoming coach told reporters. "They're playing two guys right now, and I think they're pretty effective … So we're prepared for both."
One bright light in the passing game is true freshman receiver Kyle Williams, who is third among the nation's rookies with 5.3 receptions per game. Williams had a career-high nine catches for 110 yards and a touchdown against San Jose State.
Meanwhile, the Rebels would love to get the "Chuck Wagon" rolling against Wyoming, enough so Charles Williams that rolls on by Dominique Dorsey into fourth place on UNLV's career rushing yards list. The senior running back is just 67 behind Dorsey's 2,834 racked up from 2001-04.
They certainly need better than the 70 yards the team put up in the loss to SJSU, but that won't be easy against the Cowboys, which are allowing less than 100 yards per contest, helped by middle linebacker Chad Muma's 12.7 tackles per game.
“We talk about not letting UNLV beat UNLV, but you can’t make the kinds of mistakes we did and beat a good football team, which is what San Jose State is," Arroyo told reporters last week. "We saw some growth in some areas, and these guys will respond and come back and get ready for (Wyoming).”
Arroyo is still looking for his first victory with the Rebels, and it would be a treat to get that against the team for which he served as offensive coordinator a decade ago. Trouble is all signs point to the Cowboys coming out on top, especially if COVID continues to hamper UNLV's ability to field a prepared crew.
But history tells us this could be another thriller in the 24-game head-to-head log of the two teams. Fourteen of them have been decided by one score or less, and there have been four overtime contests. And the last time they met up in Vegas was in 2016 when UNLV pulled off a 69-66 triple-overtime victory to mark itself as the highest-scoring game in Mountain West history.
Don't expect that kind of offensive output in 2020. UNLV doesn't have the horses. And Wyoming has enough to pocket and return home with its 14th win in the series... if the game is played.
Prediction: Wyoming 32, UNLV 20
Podcast: Week 13 Preview and Predictions + Interview with Kirk Herbstreit
(Charles Williams photo courtesy of UNLV Athletics)