11:30 PM EST, CBS Sports Network – Line: San Diego State -11, Over/Under: 41
With the regular season winding down, the weekend of college football gets started in Sin City, where the (No. 19) San Diego State Aztecs are on upset alert against the suddenly inspiring UNLV Rebels, who are riding their first winning streak in nearly two years. After a disappointing 4-4 finish in 2020 that left them meandering in the middle of the Mountain West, San Diego State (9-1, 5-1 in MWC) is off to their best start since (Head Coach) Brady Hoke returned to Southern California, poised for their fourth ten-win campaign since 2015. Now in his second year leading the Aztecs after being promoted following the retirement of longtime skipper, Rocky Long, Hoke has them gunning for their first Moutain West title since 2016. Of course, this is the second go-around for the 63-year old at the program where he made a name for himself over a decade ago; San Diego State struggled mightily before Hoke’s arrival back in 2009, marshalling no winning seasons since 1998 with just seven since 1980, only to put together a 14-13 record in his first stint, including a 9-4 finish back in 2010. That would then lead to his hiring at Michigan where things unraveled for the coach, eventually leading him back to the Aztecs. Coming into 2021, Hoke was returning a wealth of starters, though the majority were on a Defense that ranked eleventh nationally in points allowed (17.8) and total defense (283.5), while yielding a touchdown on just 15.2% of their opponents’ possessions (4th in FBS). Thus far, they’ve met that standard, allowing just 17.1 points per game (10th Overall) on 305.9 total yards, including 222.8 against the pass on 5.7 yards per attempt, and another 83.1 versus the run on a scant 2.8 yards per carry. A year after earning All-MWC honors, (Junior Edge-Rusher) Cameron Thomas (57 TKL, 17 TFL, 8.5 SK, 1 FF) is leading the Mountain West in tackles for loss (17) while ranking second in the league in sacks (8.5), with (Senior Linebacker) Caden McDonald (33 TKL, 6 TFL, 3.5 SK, 1 PD) adding another six tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. (Defensive Coordinator) Kurt Mattix has one of the most experienced units in the country, particularly in the Secondary were (Senior Safety) Trenton Thompson (28 TKL, 2.5 TFL, 1 FF, 3 INT, 9 PD) has been the chief playmaker within the Aztecs’ 3-3-5 system. When we last saw them, they relegated Nevada to a miniscule EIGHT rushing yards on fifteen carries in last weekend’s narrow 23-21 victory. With that said, the Aztecs had to fight tooth and nail for this one, trading blows in an evenly-matched affair which featured a 12-play, 53-yard drive to set up a 39-yard field goal courtesy of Matt Araiza to win the game. (Senior Tailback) Greg Bell (178 CAR, 847 YDS, 4.8 Y/A, 7 TD) led the way with 104 rushing yards on sixteen carries, while Chance Bell (52 CAR, 261 YDS, 5.0 Y/A, 4 TD) added another fifty-five yards and a touchdown. (Senior Quarterback) Lucas Johnson (60.8%, 801 YDS, 5.6 Y/A, 6 TD, 3 INT) completed 21-of-34 passes for just 176 yards and a touchdown, but refrained from the turnovers that cost them dearly in their lone loss of the season three weeks ago against Fresno State. This victory was significant for the fact that San Diego State is now in sole possession of first place within the West Division, a half-game ahead of the Bulldogs and a full game in front of the Wolfpack with two outings left to play. It’ll be interesting to see if they can keep it together on the offensive side of the football, for the Aztecs simply haven’t been very threatening this season when in possession, and a lot of that has to do with their Quarterback situation, which was their Achilles heel in 2020. Last season, the aforementioned Johnson started two games before getting hurt, with (Senior) Jordan Brookshire (48.2%, 560 YDS, 6.6 Y/A, 2 TD, 1 INT) getting plenty of reps late in the campaign. In the Spring, a competition broke out between Johnson, Brookshire, and (Mississippi State transfer) Jalen Mayden, though Brookshire would emerge the victor, it wouldn’t be long before Johnson would take over; the Georgia Tech transfer has dual-threat potential, but has yet to develop into the playmaker that Hoke envisioned, particularly as a passer where he’s completed just 60.8% of his attempts for 89.0 yards per game on 5.6 yards per attempt, with six touchdowns and three interceptions. With that said, this has very much been a grounded attack, with Bell bouncing back from an Achilles injury that limited him over the final four games of the previous season, rushing for 847 yards and seven touchdowns for a side that has churned out a workman-like 191.6 yards on 4.6 yards per carry. When these two teams met in last year’s season opener, Bell plowed his way to 111 yards and a score on nineteen carries as San Diego State compiled a staggering 290 rushing yards in a 34-6 romp over UNLV, which marked the sixth time out of the last seven meetings in which the Aztecs proved victorious. Furthermore, this school has performed well in these Friday night clashes, winning eleven of fourteen such contests (.785) dating back to 2013, including their most recent outing, a 19-13 win at (reigning MWC champion) San Jose State back in Mid-October.
Meanwhile, if there was ever a time NOT to institute a total rebuild, many would point to the obvious choice of doing so during a pandemic, but we have the benefit of hindsight unlike (Head Coach) Marcus Arroyo, who arrived to Sin City with designs of completely remaking UNLV (2-8, 2-4 in MWC) in his image. Without a proper Offseason including Spring Practices to implement his schemes and to evaluate his players, the 41-year old was forced to do so throughout the abridged 2020 campaign, which was nothing short of disastrous as the Rebels failed to earn a single victory in six tries. As has been the case for years, the Defense was clearly they’re most prominent issue, as Nevada-Las Vegas yielded a whopping 38.0 points per game on a rather generous 7.16 yards per play, both of which ranked last in the Mountain West Conference. Furthermore, their 3.12 points allowed per possession ranked 119th in the FBS, parlaying to a score permitted on 53.4% of their opponents’ drives. So yeah, there was nowhere to go but up heading into 2021, and the faithful in Vegas are no doubt happy to see the program finally turning it around with back-to-back wins, snapping a, 0-8 start and a 14-game losing streak dating back to the beginning of last season. Indeed, Arroyo’s charges are enjoying their first winning streak of any kind since the conclusion of the 2019 campaign, besting the likes of New Mexico (31-17) and Hawaii (27-13) in convincing fashion. Granted, the Lobos and Warriors are currently languishing at the bottom of their respective divisions within the Mountain West, but at the end of the day, a win is indeed a win, and the Rebels had to start somewhere. For a program that has struggled immensely over the past few years, it was refreshing to see that particular side of the football lead them to victory in each of the last two weeks, and doing it in two very different fashions. At New Mexico, they withstood the home side’s relentless rushing attack (48 CAR, 260 YDS, 1 TD) by forcing a quartet of fumbles, recovering three, while limiting whomever was throwing passes for the Lobos on 10-of-16 passing for a scant thirty-six yards. A week later at home against the islanders, they picked off (Hawaii Quarterback) Chevan Cordeiro twice, while relegating him to 10-of-23 passing for just 183 yards. In these two wins, (Defensive Coordinator) Peter Hansen’s troops have permitted an average of 15.0 points on 268.0 total yards, which are in stark contrast to the 36.0 points and 447.5 total yards that they had relinquished over their course of their eight consecutive losses. With that said, there have been signs UNLV is in fact turning the proverbial corner, for even prior to finally breaking through in the win column they had been knocking on the door for weeks; apart from 51-20 debacle at rival, Nevada, they competed in four straight games decided by one possession, including a 38-30 loss Fresno State, in which the visitors led 21-9 early in the second half. In fact, five of their eight losses have been by eight points or less, granting further credence to the belief that this team isn’t necessarily as bad as their record would lead you to believe. The Defense has continued to grow throughout the campaign, developing a knack for takeaways of late with over half (9) of their sixteen turnovers coming in the last four outings. (Junior Safety) Phillip Hill (40 TKL, 2 TFL, 1.0 SK, 3 INT, 1 PD) has been the standout on this growing unit, with three interceptions thus far. And it’s a good thing that the Defense has managed to force so many turnovers, for their teammates on the opposite side of the football have routinely given it away with reckless abandon. Coming into 2021, the Offense was expected to be the strength of this team, particularly when you consider that the bulk of their talent skews to that side of the football, but they simply haven’t managed to get out of their own way, which is precisely why they’ve fallen short on so many occasions. With EIGHTEEN turnovers in ten games, the Rebels have given it away on multiple occasions in six games thus far, including each of those two victories. (Freshman Quarterback) Cameron Friel (63.4%, 1,541 YDS, 7.2 Y/A, 6 TD, 10 INT) took over late in a 48-3 thumping against Iowa State, and has thrown ten interceptions in his eight appearances, six of which coming in the last three games alone. While many of his issues can be attributed to the rollercoaster that is the maturation of a young Quarterback, there are weapons to be found on Arroyo’s Offense; (Senior Tailback) Charles Williams (221 CAR, 1,084 YDS, 4.9 Y/A, 13 TD), who is in his SIXTH season in Las Vegas, has amassed 4,024 yards since 2016, surpassing Tim Cornett for most UNLV history, while (Sophomore Receiver) Kyle Williams (40 REC, 594 YDS, 14.9 Y/R, 2 TD) is the reigning Mountain West Freshman of the Year. The former hasn’t always been the recipient of good blocking this season, but he is coming off a career-high 266 rushing yards and three touchdowns in last weekend’s thumping of Hawaii. With those two wins in the books, there is no doubt that the UNLV is feeling good about themselves, but no comes a stiff test in the form of San Diego State, who as we outlined earlier has had their number of late with six wins in their last seven encounters. Williams has never beaten the Aztecs, and apart from 113-yard performance against them in 2019 hasn’t enjoyed the best run of fortune.