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SJS football game 4 preview: Spartans face Rebels in transition

A trap game between friends

NCAA Football: UNLV at San Jose State Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

San Jose State vs. UNLV Rebels

Location: San Jose, CA (CEFCU Stadium)

Date/Time: Saturday, November 14th at 7:30 pm (PST)

Television: FS2

Radio play-by-play: KDOW (1220 AM, 95.3 FM in SF), KSJS 90.5 FM

Head-to-head tidbits:

The first time San Jose State played UNLV was 1981 during the golden Jack Elway era. Under Elway in 1982 was also the last time the Spartans started 3-0.

The last time the Spartans were 4-0 was 1955. Four Spartans from that team were selected in the NFL draft, as four on the current roster can likely get on the NFL radar with their continued trajectories.

Though the Spartans lead the overall series 16-7-1 over the Rebels, the Brent Brennan era against UNLV is a mixed bag.

In 2017, the Rebels smacked the Spartans 41-13. San Jose returned the favor beating UNLV 50-37 the following year.

A year ago at UNLV, the Spartans were behind 38-35. In a frantic fourth quarter with four lead changes, a promising 80-yard Spartan drive with a minute left ended on a tipped pass interception. It was another of those heart-breaking losses.

On Saturday night in San Jose, the Spartans are two-touchdown favorites looking to avoid the dreaded trap game phenomena against the 0-3 Rebels.

The game within the game

For the nerds-at-heart, it’s always the game-within-the-game aspect that’s as fascinating as the obvious topics, especially in a game the Spartans are supposed win.

There’s a long-known personal bond and professional history between rookie UNLV head coach Marcus Arroyo and Spartan head coach Brent Brennan from working as assistant SJS coaches with the late Dick Tomey to Brennan being in Arroyo’s wedding to Arroyo being a former Spartan QB two decades ago.

As they’re almost cut from the same cloth, Arroyo has something Brennan wants and Brennan has something Arroyo wants (UNLV’s brand new 73,000 square foot football complex and recruiting lure is probably the main toy any coach would want).

Though Arroyo is having a rough first-year start, as would be expected, the Rebels are coming together quickly.

Arroyo’s taken his senior quarterback Max Gilliam from a woeful first game and has exponentially helped improve Gilliam’s play in just the three games. The Rebel running game started equally woeful, but has been well over 100 yards the last two games. UNLV‘s time of possession is 30+ minutes. Arroyo is being aggressive as well; successfully converting on 8 of 10 fourth downs. Arroyo mainly needs what Brennan has on defense.

Brennan knows Arroyo is a detail-fanatic and can bring out the very best from an offense as Arroyo did with the Oregon Ducks. And the best unmeasurable intangibles Brennan started way back in his first year is something Arroyo’s program will need to be successful as well.

Bottom-line, regardless of their deep connection, these head coaches will be frenemies Saturday night.

It expects to be highly competitive despite the 3-0 and 0-3 records because of these dynamics and because of highly competitive friends.

The Spartan’s body of work to date

By the numbers, San Jose State deserves to be 14+ point favorites.

Losing to the Rebels at this point would be a bad loss for Brennan considering the contrasting records and who and how the Spartans won their last three games. But a mental letdown at this point doesn’t fit the Brennan culture.

Some key salient stats tell us a lot about how that culture matters in the field of play.

In just three games, the Spartans are among the top 10 in the nation in red zone defense along with a greatly improved run defense. Spartan DC Derrick Odum finally has his key anchor pieces and matured defense that matches a fierce and bonded will.

On the other side of the ball, you now see a top 5 in the nation red zone scoring offense. Nine times in the zone – nine scores (five passing TDs, two rush TDs, two FGs). There’s an overall pride and confidence from the battle scars and angst of past years.

It’s just too bad an audience can’t feel and witness that energy in person.

In all, the Brennan culture is fully permeated win or lose.

An expected prediction and outcome

Every game has a personality of its own.

Game one against highly-favored Air Force was about punishing defense. Game two over New Mexico saw offensive prowess and game three was pay-back on San Diego State at least between players. Game four will see its own unique challenges.

On the surface, the expectation is to exploit a Rebel defense that’s given up over 1,000 yards in two games. The Spartan offense can certainly do that and they need to score in a majority of their possessions, because the Rebels will possess the ball well-enough and then some.

On defense, Brennan, Odum and the team will not look at the Rebels as an 0-3 team, but a very formidable and quickly improving team they will need to punch and counter-punch. As the Spartan defense is the heavyweight here, they’ll bend some to feel you out, but the 60-minute forecast is to crush any UNLV hot spots.

But expect Arroyo to expand his offensive horizons, because he’s completely capable and will be much more creative than he was at Oregon, because now he can. Brennan and team are certainly aware.

A Spartan win over UNLV would be the sign of a great squad who’s played the widest variety of teams and excelled greatly at every type. If San Jose State remains equally vigilant and unforgiving on an up-and-coming team, it’s a win.

Follow @vicaquino on Twitter for more free analysis and color commentary on the San Jose State Spartans.