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UNLV vs. Fresno State: Keys to a Bulldogs victory

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The upstart Rebels have looked more competitive than many expected, but here's how the 'Dogs can steal a much-needed home win.

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

WEEK 7: UNLV Rebels (2-4, 1-1 Mountain West) vs. Fresno State Bulldogs (1-5, 0-3)

WHEN: Friday, October 16 -- 7:30 PM, PST

WHERE: Bulldog Stadium; Fresno, CA (41,031)

TV: ESPN2

RADIO: Fresno's two ESPN affiliates, 940 and 1600 AM, will broadcast the game in English and Spanish, respectively. The Rebels broadcast can be heard in and around Vegas on both 1100 AM and 100.9 FM.

SERIES RECORD: The Bulldogs have won 12 of 17 meetings with the Rebels. In last year's meeting at Sam Boyd Stadium, though, UNLV rallied from blowing a 10-point lead in the fourth quarter to stun Fresno, 30-27, in overtime.

WEB SITES: GoBulldogs.com, Fresno State's official athletics site | UNLVRebels.com, UNLV's official athletics site

After struggling against consecutive Top 25 foes in non-conference play, the UNLV Rebels have taken a step forward in Mountain West action. After capturing the Fremont Cannon, they fought back from a double-digit fourth quarter deficit before falling in overtime against San Jose State. The loss didn't faze head coach Tony Sanchez, who still believes he has the horses to shock the naysayers and win the West division.

The Rebels, then, might appear to be catching Fresno State at an opportune time. The Bulldogs have been run over by each of their three conference opponents thus far, and the offense has reeled as quarterbacks have shuffled in and out of the starting lineup. However, Kilton Anderson's ascension to the starting lineup appears to be permanent, and he represents the potential upside of a mostly unknown product.

Will this move mean a victory Friday night? Perhaps. The Bulldogs might consider following this particular path to victory:

1. Let it rip on 1st down

Too often, the Bulldogs' first-down playcalling has looked uninspired and last week was no different: 18 runs, 7 passes. What's worth noting, though, with the caveat of small sample size, is that Kilton Anderson did his best work when he was allowed to throw on first down.

The first play of the game was intercepted by Utah State, but it's worth noting that at least Anderson took a shot down the field, a promising wrinkle that has often been MIA in recent weeks. USU's safety in the second quarter came on an ill-timed play action pass in the shadow of the Bulldogs' end zone, but the whole picture is a little more palatable: 4-of-6 for 75 yards and a touchdown to even out the early INT.

In addition, consider that Fresno State hasn't been particularly successful in running the football on first down, either: 108 carries for 361 yards (3.34 ypc). UNLV, on the one hand, has proven to be opportunistic with 10 interceptions in six games but, on the other, they've also allowed 60 plays of more than ten yards through the air, which ranks 109th in the FBS. The Rebels are also last in the Mountain West in passing yards allowed per game.

Offensive coordinator Dave Schramm may see his hand forced if running backs Malique Micenheimer and Dustin Garrison are slowed Friday night by lingering injuries, but I would argue it's not the worst idea in the world to attack through the air.

2. Get off the field on 3rd down (and 4th down, for good measure)

Fresno State is one of nine FBS teams to have allowed opponents to convert over 50% of their third-down conversions. The Bulldogs and the Rebels have both faced 94 third downs on defense, and UNLV has made 16 more stops (53.19% vs. 36.17%). Strangely enough, both teams also have the same conversion rate on offense (30-of-88, 34.09%), but Fresno State will want to do everything they can to get off the field more often than they have in recent weeks.

Their best chance at this, I think, will depend on their ability to force the Rebels to throw on third-and-long. The Bulldogs' pass defense splits are even more egregious in that situation -- 11-of-20 conversions allowed on third and seven yards or more -- but UNLV's Kurt Palandech, who will get the nod on Friday with Blake Decker recovering from injury, has only moved the chains on 25% of his third-down passes.

Stopping the Rebels on third down won't matter, though, if the 'Dogs can't get stops on fourth down, too. To date, Fresno's opponents are 9 of 13 on fourth down, but UNLV hasn't been very successful in that same situation (2 of 8). The Bulldogs' linebackers are likely to play a tremendous role in this regard: Advanced stats like Havoc rate (percentage of plays with tackle for loss, pass defensed or forced fumble) have pegged this unit as one of the few bright spots in the season's first half.

It's not only because Ejiro Ederaine is tied for the MWC lead in sacks, either; young talent like James Stanley and Nela Otukolo have shown flashes of productivity in limited action and will need to do so again.

3. Get Chad Olsen the ball

It seems as though the sophomore tight end vanishes from the game plan for long stretches at a time, but it might be instructive to note how aggressive some UNLV foes have been in getting the ball to the big guys on offense. By my count, SJSU's Kenny Potter targeted Billy Freeman 11 times last Saturday, which is a staggering amount when you consider Olsen has received just 17 targets all season. Northern Illinois had two tight ends combine for five catches, 58 yards and two scores in the season opener. UNLV has looked vulnerable over the middle at times, which should be good news for Chad Olsen.

Olsen had arguably his best game of 2014 against UNLV, too, when he hauled in four catches for 55 yards and two touchdowns. I believe they should attack the Rebels' linebackers in coverage over the middle for a couple of reasons: UNLV is more likely to be concerned with speedy receivers like Jamire Jordan outside the numbers, and the front four is not likely to be as punishing as Utah State's was last Saturday, as evidenced by the Rebels' own 0.6% Havoc rate among their defensive linemen.