Who: No.23 Fresno State Bulldogs (7-1, 4-0 MWC) v. UNLV Rebels (2-6, 0-4 MWC)
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas, NV- (Capacity- 35,500)
When: November 3, 2018; 7:30PM PT
How To Watch: Game will be broadcast on CBS Sports (if you have it)
Fresh off a dominating win over Hawaii, and finding themselves in the initial College Football Playoff rankings, the Dogs must go on the road to Sam Boyd Stadium to visit the UNLV Rebels in an attempt to excise the last demons for the program. Despite an incredible turnaround in Jeff Tedford’s first year, the Fresno State conference record had one blemish on it, a home loss to a completely mediocre UNLV team, 26-16. The coaches have said the loss came from complacency, but I’d be surprised if the staff didn’t have this game circled for revenge this year. And now there’s a ranking and NY6 bowl berth on the line.
UNLV got off to a decent start this year, showing some strong signs of life against USC, and winning easy games over UTEP and Prairie View A&M. They were up to 2-1, and looked poised to make their first bowl game under Tony Sanchez. Even a loss to Arkansas State didn’t dull things, because the Red Wolves are generally a solid G5 team. Then the wheels fell off. The offense disappeared, the defense never materialized, and then Armani Rogers went down. Since starting 2-1, the Rebels have lost 5 straight, including giving SJSU their first win of the season. Now they sit at 2-6, with the bowl eligibility window all but closed, with their only chance being to win out. First opponent, the No.23 Fresno State Bulldogs.
If there was a downside to the Hawaii game, it was that Fresno State’s defense fell out of the No.1 spot for scoring and red zone defense. They did move into 1st for interceptions gained, and defensive touchdowns. But now they’re down to No.4 in scoring defense because of a garbage time TD for Hawaii, the jerks. Now they look to hit their stride against a putrid UNLV offense. Yes, they did score 37 against the only team in the conference worse than them, but that really doesn’t change the trajectory of their season. The good news was that Keesean Johnson moved to No.1 all-time in Fresno State history for receptions, and with at least 5 more games to play. Except the Dogs to go to him early and often against a depleted Rebel secondary. As of now, UNLV’s defense ranks 124th total, and 126th against the pass. If you think that’s bad, they’re 127th against the rush. This might be the game that opens up the Fresno State rushing game.
If there’s been one part of the Fresno State offense, it has been the running game. They’re up to 25th in S&P+ offense, but an abysmal 118th in rushing offense. The last two games have been an improvement, and a lot of that is based around Ronnie Rivers being back and able to contribute in the rushing and passing game. The throwback screen from Marcus McMaryion has been absolutely lethal so far, and has given Jordan Mims the chance to come in later in games fresh, and attack a tired defense. If there’s ever a game to get all 4 running backs involved, this will definitely be the best chance the Bulldogs will face until the end of the season. Especially if they can finally get one offensive line set for the stretch run, with Dontae Bull filling in for a banged up Syrus Tuitele last Saturday against Hawaii, and Logan Hughes coming in on the left side. While there is definitely still rotations that get done just to give players rest, having a fixed starting line will go a long way to helping the rushing game improve.
On the other end of the offense, the passing game has been firing on absolutely all cylinders recently. Marcus McMaryion remains one of the most accurate QBs in the country, still over 70% completions with an 18/2 TD/INT ratio. He’s almost to his passing total from last season, and Keesean Johnson is getting closer to being the Bulldogs’ first 1,000 yard receiver since 2014. That consistency, and the emergence of Jared Rice has been huge for this team. He’s the second leading receiver as a tight end, and has been an incredibly reliable safety valve for Marcus when the other routes don’t materialize. Just don’t see a way for UNLV to cover all of the Bulldog receivers, while also accounting for the running game, plus Marcus having the ability to take off an run as well.
Despite being completely ignored for the major defensive awards, Jeff Allison has remained an integral part of this elite defense, and has proven to be just as effective plugging running lanes as knocking receivers out of their shoes. I’m sure he’ll get deployed a lot to slow down Lexington Thomas, really the only functional part of this offense. Not sure I can see the Bulldog DBs getting many opportunities to pick off Max Gillum, but they’ve shown they don’t need a whole lot to boost their INT total.
Looking at this game from a stats perspective, it looks like it should be a walk-over for the Dogs. S&P+ gives them a 92% of winning, with a projected margin of 25. ESPN’s FPI gives them a 95% chance to win, and the Vegas line is 26. Fresno State is 7-1 against the spread this season, but this is a big number. Getting a 4 TD lead isn’t easy to do, but they did it against Hawaii last week, and UNLV is a lot worse on defense than Hawaii. Not sure if the Rebels can count on a light delay to slow down Fresno State, and I see the defense coming out with their hair on fire against UNLV. But we thought it would be a walk-over last year too, and UNLV caught us sleeping. That was a crushing loss for the team, and probably kept them from hosting the title game last year. I’m sure everyone that was on that team remembers that feeling, and will look to exercise those ghosts.
SCORE PREDICTION: FRESNO STATE 52-7 UNLV