UNLV vs. Fresno State: Three Keys to a Bulldogs Win
The Rebels might be a flawed foe, but what can the Bulldogs do to prevent a letdown?
Valley Trophy? Check. Oil Can Trophy? Check. Same old Rebels? Well… not quite.
WEEK 9: UNLV (2-5, 1-3 Mountain West) vs. Fresno State Bulldogs (5-2, 4-0 MW)
WHEN: Saturday, October 28 — 7:00 PM PT
WHERE: Bulldog Stadium; Fresno, California (41,031)
TV: AT&T SportsNet/ROOT Sports
RADIO: The Fresno State broadcast can be found in and around Fresno on the Central Valley’s local ESPN Radio affiliates: 940 (in English) and 1600 (in Spanish) AM. The Rebels broadcast can be heard on 1100 AM and 100.9 FM in and around Las Vegas.
SERIES RECORD: The Bulldogs currently hold a 13-6 advantage in the series. In their last meeting on October 1, 2016, UNLV defeated Fresno 40-26 in Las Vegas.
Who’s having the wilder 2017 at this point: Fresno State or UNLV?
If you haven’t paid much attention to the Rebels since last year’s humiliation at Sam Boyd Stadium, the answer may not be so clear cut. The Bulldogs have gotten off to a shockingly strong start to conference play, of course, but UNLV has been a fascinating team to watch from week to week, in this third year of Tony Sanchez’s tenure. The painful lessons of the present — the historic Howard loss, a huge blown lead to Air Force and a second-half blowout at the hands of Utah State — haven’t totally obscured this team’s promise, and lesser Rebel squads have upended the Bulldogs in two of the last three years.
Coming off a convincing win over San Diego State, it might be tempting for the ‘Dogs to look past a team with clearly defined strengths and weaknesses. Here’s what they can do to ensure UNLV doesn’t sneak up on them yet again:
Three Keys for Fresno State
If Armani Rogers plays, will they make him play like a freshman? The UNLV depth chart currently lists three possibilities at quarterback: Rogers OR backup Kurt Palandech OR Johnny Stanton (who, by the way, was pressed into playing linebacker last Saturday). Make no mistake, though: If Rogers emerges from the concussion protocol with a clean slate, he’ll start. If that happens, the Bulldogs front seven will have an interesting test on its hands.
On the surface, it doesn’t make much sense to compare Rogers to Fresno State’s own Marcus McMaryion but, looking deeper, both quarterbacks have had more success throwing the ball on early downs than in more obvious passing situations: Both teams rank in the top 11 nationally in Standard Down Success Rate (Fresno State is 11th, UNLV is 4th), and in the triple digits in Passing Down Success Rate (where the Bulldogs rank 102nd and UNLV is 126th). The number to watch here is seven: When considering both his arm and his legs, Rogers has converted 14-of-27 opportunities on third down and six yards or less, a 52% rate, and just 4-of-35, 11%, on third-and-seven or more.
If the Rebels can put themselves in manageable situations, they won’t hesitate to put the ball in their young quarterback’s hands — after adjusting for sacks, Rogers has averaged 7.4 yards per carry, making him as dangerous as Lexington Thomas — which makes it important that his production ends up more Lamar Jordan than Jalen Hurts.
Will the game plan let McMaryion take shots downfield early in drives? The UNLV defense is, to put it mildly, not good. By yards per play allowed, they rank 10th in the Mountain West, but they’ve struggled badly in the field position game in the last couple weeks, too. Three of Air Force’s last four touchdown drives in their big comeback began at the UNLV 39 or better; Utah State’s average starting field position began at their own 29 in the first quarter and ended up on the Rebels’ side of the field in the second half. A disappearing offense is partly to blame, but there’s a clear weakness here.
Before allowing those big comebacks, the Rebels held their own on the opponents’ side of the field in the first half, but it might be worth it for the Bulldogs to go deep early, anyway, if they start on or around their own 25: For one, Marcus McMaryion currently ranks fifth in the FBS by quarterback rating when throwing on first down. More importantly, however, opposing quarterbacks have a combined 187.51 rating, with 11.6 yards per attempt, when throwing from within their own 21 to their own 39 against the Rebels secondary. Don’t be shocked if there’s a long catch-and-run score or two to put the ‘Dogs up early.
Can the front four contain Lexington Thomas? If you read last week’s keys to a San Diego State win, you already know that the Aztecs run game, for as good as Rashaad Penny had been, had its flaws. Those flaws don’t exist in this running game, which ranks fifth nationally with 6.31 yards per carry (coincidentally, right behind Alabama) and sits within the top 40 by every advanced metric.
This is mostly because of Thomas, who has played like an offensive player of the year candidate and will be the focal point of Fresno State’s defensive efforts early and often: UNLV ran the ball 77% of the time on first down in the last two weeks, and Thomas himself has run for at least ten yards on 22% of his 118 rushing attempts this season. Odd as it might seem, the Rebels might present the toughest test since the Alabama game in stopping a running attack cold, so continuing to limit big plays will be vital.