Location: Allegiant Stadium – Las Vegas, NV
Date/Time: Thursday, October 21st @ 8 PM PDT
Broadcast: CBS Sports Network
Radio: KTRB (860 AM, San Francisco) & Sirius XM Radio Channel 382
Head-to-head: Since 1981, San Jose State (3-4, 1-2 MW) is 18-6-1 over the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels (0-6, 0-2 MW). In their 2020 championship run, the Spartans spent a few seasons worth of games in Las Vegas last year due to COVID restrictions in San Jose.
In the Brent Brennan era, the Spartans are 2-2 with this year’s tiebreaker against long-time friend and UNLV’s second-year head coach Marcus Arroyo in their second face-off.
“It’s always exciting to play against a friend. Some of those moments pre-game or post game are some of my favorite moments as a head coach,” said Brennan on facing Arroyo. “The fact that it’s Marcus and that we had such a great experience here at San Jose State together - he’s one of my closest friends and I’m just looking forward to seeing him, regardless that we talk every week.”
The betting lines have SJS at less than a touchdown favorite, but as we’ve seen throughout the season, win-loss records and analytics more often defy logic.
What to expect against UNLV
Against the Aztecs last week, the Spartans were clearly imposing their will in a tough and tight double-OT loss. Peel back the penalties and there was a certain win for the Spartans over a nationally ranked team.
What is undeniable from last week is the physicality the Spartans had in both the run game led by Tyler Nevens and the run stop game. Depending on what identity we can get from one game to the other, most certainly it is the one from last week Brennan, staff, players and fans need and want - except for the penalties, of course.
Often this season, we’ve seen where win-loss records and point spreads mean nothing, where any team on any given day could play like they were undefeated or not.
What we see this week is a winless Rebels team against an under .500 team that the number crunchers are giving less than a touchdown edge to the Spartans. What that says is to expect a game of it.
The confidence and execution pressure are certainly on the Spartans, especially its offense. Assuming the same hungry SJS defense, most eyes are on QB Nick Nash to keep progressing.
Focusing on what the Spartan offense needs to do
Imagine a Spartan offense that’s been matching the output of its defense all year. It would be a completely different conversation out in the MW ether.
Trusting the defensive energy will continue for the Spartans and if the offensive executes, a convincing win will emerge and the progression will continue.
1) Increase the completion percentage: It’s a simple stat to look at with Nick Nash. His completion rating is at or under 50% against good and great defenses. Against a lesser defense in his first start, Nash had over an 80% completion rate, which is an indicator that increased speed and pressure correlates to performance quality, currently. Things need to “slow down” mentally. Some quick release options should help too.
“I think experience is really important and that’s the hardest part about the QB position, since there’s no substitute for the speed of it,” said Brennan. “It’s just hard to duplicate that in practice. You can try like heck, but a lot of that is going to come with more experience.”
Against San Diego State last week, Nash played exceptionally well, except for the one blip of an interception in OT. One would beg to differ that Nash already has some good games under his belt to be Starkel-like now. Or perhaps in the bigger picture, Nash is getting there, as he is quite possibly the go-to QB next year.
“I know he’s obviously frustrated with the decision at the end of the game last week and that’s part of his growing process, as hard and challenging and difficult as it was,” continued Brennan on Nash. “I told him ‘Hey, we’re in that game, because of a lot of the plays you made’ so let’s focus on that and the mistake at the end, let’s work on that too and show you the bigger picture and see what you could’ve done better in that situation.”
2) Keep running but get that other go-to receiver going now: After 3 ½ years of a Kevin McGiven offense, things seem clear this traditional pro-style offense seeks balance; even a grinding offense that mirrors what their defense can do to wear you down. It all works well if there’s execution and strong line play on both sides.
The guts to keep running last week is a testament to trusting McGiven and the offensive line. When the run game in the first half against the Aztecs was averaging 1-yard a carry, the Spartans kept at it and broke 100-yards plus on the ground for a second straight year on the Aztec defense. So, it seems clear the Spartans want to and need to run.
On the receiving side, besides tight-end Derrick Deese Jr., the Spartans need an edge receiver or two to take command. What’s been said about a drop-off in that area in the pre-season is true at this time. You’re basically not seeing the break-away speed and separation we’ve seen in the past. It’s an interesting dilemma and interesting enough to scheme out of?
3) Big plays: If 1 + 2 from above can happen, it will equal three. It should mean a couple few extra big plays. And that’s another big obvious difference from last season. There were more big plays.
So, big plays don’t have to be bombs, though those are the home runs everyone wants to see. They could be more “medium plays”, as we’ve seen regularly with Deese. It could mean more seven to 15 yards bursts from Nevens, Nash, Shamar Garrett and Kairee Robinson.
This UNLV game is the perfect opportunity to continue the momentum into a second game in a row of power and will. It needs to happen. The Spartans need this game to show they can be consistent and play beyond what the competition dictates.
A close win is a win, but a good win means the signals are real to potentially surprise everyone at the end of the season.