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Fresno State vs. UNLV preview: Bulldogs look to reverse fortunes in Vegas

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A battle to stay out of the West cellar could set the tone for the rest of Mountain West play.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Fresno State Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

WEEK 5: Fresno State Bulldogs (1-2) vs. UNLV Rebels (1-3)

WHEN: Saturday, October 1 — 7:30 PM PT

WHERE: Sam Boyd Stadium; Las Vegas, NV (35,500)

TV: CBS Sports Network

RADIO: The 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.

SERIES RECORD: Fresno State holds a 13-5 advantage in this series. In the last meeting on October 16, 2015, the Bulldogs held on for a 31-28 win in a rain-soaked affair.

WEBSITES: GoBulldogs.com, the official Fresno State athletics website | UNLVRebels.com, the official UNLV athletics website

How does a team respond after blowing a 31-point lead as spectacularly as Fresno State did last weekend?

No one anticipated that they would find out, but that’s where the Bulldogs stand as conference play begins. In a young season rife with familiar disappointments, the loss to Tulsa felt like more than having guts ripped out, which was how head coach Tim DeRuyter chose to characterize it. It felt like more than simply being thatfaraway, whatever that means to the coaches and athletes.

However an individual chooses to name it, the trip to Las Vegas seems like the truest potential reality check yet. Rebels coach Tony Sanchez didn’t mince words in how he sees the game, as the team’s results have stagnated despite its potential. Both Fresno State and UNLV are in roughly the same position, but with much different stakes: DeRuyter’s team is fighting for survival, whereas Sanchez’s Rebels fight simply for respectability.

Three keys to a Fresno State win

Finish, finish, finish. Only one team in the FBS ranks has faced more rushing attempts by its opponents than Fresno State, and its for good reason: The 5.08 yards per carry they allow ranks just 111th in the nation, and that figure jumps to 5.48 yards in the second half of their four games (which would rank 124th). Their defensive stuff rate is 118th, and their defensive line Havoc rate is 127th. You get the picture.

The defensive line has to be better, and they have to hold up against an offense that’s likely to lean heavily on its talented runners to take the pressure off of a new freshman quarterback. Lexington Thomas, in particular, has averaged roughly 5.8 yards per carry after halftime for the Rebels, so Malik Forrester and Patrick Belony, who’ve had mixed results at the nose guard position, need to have their best game yet.

Chason Virgil must extend drives. This is actually a two-fold problem. Fresno State’s offensive stuff rate, the opposite of what was mentioned in the link above, is 27.7% (125th), which means a ball carrier is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage more than once every four plays. As a result, no team has thrown as often on third down while being so awful at it.

Virgil’s QB rating on third downs is just 68.07 (18-45-192-0-2, 12 first downs), and he has to improve against a Rebels pass defense that has been... decent in such situations: Opponents have a 59% completion rate, and they haven’t thrown any third-down interceptions, but they’ve managed just 16 first downs on 39 attempts. Aaron Peck’s physical advantage could prove advantageous against UNLV cornerbacks Torry McTyer and Tim Hough, though his opportunities have been limited in those situations thus far. Twelve of his 21 catches have come on first down in the team’s first four games.

Do more with what’s given. Perhaps no team in the FBS has done less with favorable field position than Fresno State. The average Bulldogs drive has started at roughly the 35-yard line (13th in the FBS), yet they’ve averaged just 3.67 points per trip inside the opponents’ 40-yard line (120th). It’s hard to say how direct the connection is from one number to the other, but there’s likely some correlation between them.

Conversely, few teams have started with a worse average field position than UNLV (27.2 yard line, 114th), but done more once they’ve reached the other team’s 40 (6.43 points per drive, 4th). Much of this is a credit to Thomas, who is one of seven running backs with three runs of 40+ yards, which places added importance to slowing him down.