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Wolf Pack Week 9 preview and prediction: UNLV Rebels

NCAA Football: UNLV at Nevada David Calvert-USA TODAY Sports

In the Battle for the Fremont Cannon — the largest trophy in college football — the Nevada Wolf Pack will host intrastate rival, the UNLV Rebels, on Friday, Oct. 29 on 7:00 p.m. PT on CBS Sports Network.

The two foes have split each of the last eight meetings. After dropping their previous two meetings, the Pack took home the cannon and painted it blue last year after a 37-19 road victory. They are 27-19 all-time against the Rebels.

UNLV has lost 13 straight games and is 0-13 under head coach Marcus Arroyo. Believe it or not, its last win came in its 2019 season-finale, downing Nevada 33-30 in overtime.

Nevada’s coming off a heartbreaking 34-32 defeat against the Fresno State Bulldogs, who moved into second place in the West Division at 3-1. Pack wideout Romeo Doubs tied the program record for catches with 19, and would’ve broken the record if he wasn't pushed out of the end zone in the final two-point conversion attempt, which would’ve tied the game.

UNLV is coming off its fourth straight game where it’s lost by one possession, this time to San Jose State, 27-20. Nick Nash’s 15-yard rushing touchdown with over seven minutes to go was the final score of the contest — UNLV’s third go-ahead touchdown allowed in the final period.

Will UNLV get its first win in 23 months against its longtime foe? Let’s dive into the matchup and find out!

Matchup: Nevada (5-2, 2-1) vs. UNLV (0-7, 0-3)

When: Friday, Oct. 29 at 7:00 p.m. PT

Where: Mackay Stadium in Reno, Nev.

TV: CBS Sports Network

Spread: Nevada -20.5 (William Hill)

Money line: Nevada -1600, UNLV +900

Last Meeting: Nevada won 37-19 (Oct. 31, 2020)

Matchup History: Nevada leads 27-19

When UNLV’s on offense:

The Rebels have shuffled between four quarterbacks — Doug Brumfield, Justin Rogers, the once-Ohio State-and-Miami star Tate Martell and Cameron Friel — this season.

It seems like, however, the Rebels have found success with Friel, at least for the time being. He’s completed 64 percent of his passes for 859 yards, two touchdowns and four interceptions. Last week against the Spartans, he went 20-for-28 (71.4 percent) for 240 yards and a touchdown.

Where the Rebels see a considerable amount of their offense success is under bell cow Charles Williams — they have, indeed, rallied around the “Chuck Wagon”.

NCAA Football: Utah State at UNLV
UNLV Rebels running back Charles Williams (8) evades Utah State Aggies safety Hunter Reynolds (27) during the first half at Allegiant Stadium.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

He ranks second in the conference in yards (714) and third in rushing touchdowns (7) on five yards a carry. He’s recorded 19-plus carries in five games — including two of 25-plus — with three 100-yard performances.

Williams has accounted for 86.2 percent of his team’s rushing yards and 39.6 percent of his team’s yards from scrimmage. Those are significantly high marks for any player, let alone a running back in this day and age — albeit on a team with the 8th-worst offense nationally (296.7 ypg).

Only two Rebel receivers have hauled in 15-plus receptions: Kyle Williams, the team’s leading receiver, and his cohort Steve Jenkins.

Williams has yet to record a receiving touchdown on the year, but tops the team in both receptions (25) and yards (324). Meanwhile, Jenkins has tallied three of UNLV’s five receiving touchdowns with 21 catches for 293 yards.

Tyleek Collins (6 rec., 109 yards) and Zyell Griffin (7 rec., 106 yards) are the only other Rebel wideouts with one touchdown catch.

Though it had a down week against Fresno State, the Wolf Pack boast a destructive defensive line. Nevada ranks T-3 in the FBS in both sacks (28.0) and sacks per game (4.0) — led by Tristan Nichols, who is T-2 nationally in sacks with eight.

Only two players — Alabama’s Will Anderson Jr. (8.5) and Army’s Andre Carter II (8.5) — has recorded more sacks than the Pack’s 6-foot-4 defensive lineman.

Nichols has one additional tackle for loss with 13 total tackles on the year and two forced fumble. He’s joined by Dom Peterson and Sam Hammond.

Peterson is second on the team in sacks (4.5) and tackles-for-loss (7.0), returning one of Nichols’ forced fumbles for a touchdown. Hammond’s tallied 10 tackles, four sacks with one pass deflection.

Christopher Love (13 tackles, two sacks) and Daniel Grzesiak (10 tackles, two sacks) have contributed on the defensive line as well. In short, Nevada’s front-four is loaded with depth.

Don’t look away yet. It’s complemented by two stout linebackers in Daiyan Henley, the team’s leading tackler, and Lawson Hall, who’s tallied the most total tackles (171) amongst any Pack player since the start of 2019.

Henley tops the team in tackles with 60 with two tackles-for-loss, adding a team-high three interceptions and one fumble recovery. Hall is second with 50. He’s tallied two tackles-for-loss, one sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

Nevada’s secondary is led by safeties JoJuan Claiborne and Jordan Lee, who are No. 3 and 4 on the team in tackles, respectively. Lee’s totaled 41 while Claiborne’s added 35. Lee’s had four tackles-for-loss, three pass deflections, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Claiborne’s recorded just a half tackle-for0loss with two pass deflections.

Corners AJ King, Bentlee Sanders and Berdale Robins have all made solid contributions. King’s deflected a team-high five passes, in addition to his 24 tackles — two for loss (one sack). Sanders has 22 tackles with two pass deflections, while Robins — who earned All-Conference honors in 2019 — had 14 tackles with one pick-six, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.

When Nevada is on offense:

The Wolf Pack boast the arguably the conference’s most potent passing attack, topping the Mountain West in yards per game (379.4 ypg) and completion percentage (70.2), while ranking second in pass efficiency rating (157.5) and passing touchdowns (21).

Nevada’s strong aerial attack is led by Carson Strong, a potential day-one draft selection.

Against Fresno State, Strong set career highs in completions (49) and passing yards (476) with four touchdowns and one interception. He’s completed a conference-best 70.4 percent of his attempts for 2,466 yards, 20 touchdowns to just four interceptions. His 5:1 touchdown-to-interception ratio is the best in the conference.

Nevada’s rushing attack was been the worst in the Mountain West, totaling 79.9 rushing yards per game (last) on 3.1 yards per carry (third-worst). Against six FBS programs, it’s tallied 15.75 percent of its yards on the ground. Only Mississippi State (11.5 percent), behind air-raid aficionado Mike Leach, has garnered a fewer percentage of its yards on the ground.

Toa Taua’s rushed for a team-high 453 yards on 77 carries (5.9 ypc) with four rushing scores. His sidekick, Devonte Lee, has recorded 166 rushing yards (on 54 carries) with three touchdowns.

Doubs and Cole Turner have been Strong’s biggest beneficiaries through the Pack’s first seven games.

Doubs has hauled in a team-most 45 receptions for 590 yards and three touchdowns. Cole Turner, a 6-foot-6 tight end, is a mismatch problem all across the field, especially in the red zone; he’s totaled 42 receptions for 508 yards and a team-high six touchdowns.

Melquan Stovall’s added 30 receptions for 368 yards and a score; Justin Lockhart has 26 receptions for 358 yards and two touchdowns; Tory Horton’s recorded 22 catches for 257 yards and one touchdown.

UNLV’s had a difficult time generating pressure this season, which will be important if it wants to slow Strong down.

It’s tallied only seven sacks through seven games — the fewest in the conference. Only five other FBS programs — Massachusetts, Navy, Texas State, South Florida and Kansas — have recorded fewer sack totals.

Linebackers Adam Plant Jr. and Brennon Scott account for four of those seven sacks — each with two apiece. Both Plant Jr. and Scott have five tackles-for-loss with one pass deflection, apiece; Plant Jr.’s recoded 23 tackles to Scott’s 21, however.

UNLV’s three-base defensive linemen are headed by Kolo Uasike (18 tackles, 1 TFL), Eliel Ehimare (11 tackles, 1 TFL) and Naki Fahina (12 tackles, 2 TFL).

Windmon, who man’s UNLV’s JACK position, tops the team in tackles with 67 with 6.5 tackles-for-loss, 1.5 sacks, one pass deflection and one forced fumble. MIKE linebacker Austin Ajiake is second in tackles with 64 and one tackle-for-loss and one pass deflection.

UNLV’s featured arguably the worst pass defense in the Mountain West. It’s surrendered the second-most passing yards (289.3 ypg) with the worst completion percentage (71.3) and the worst opponent’s pass efficiency rating (165.29).

Free safety Bryce Jackson is third in tackles with 44 with a team-high three pass deflection, in addition to his one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Philip Hill’s totaled 30 tackles with 1.5 tackles-for-loss with two interceptions.

Prediction:

In its last several games, UNLV’s been a frisky team. It’s lost by one possession to Utah State, Air Force and San Jose State — who sport a combined 15-8 record (8-5 MWC). In six of the last nine meetings between Nevada and UNLV, it ended up being one-possession games. Though the talent discrepancy between the two intrastate rivals was much smaller than it is now, in recent memory, the games have found a way to become interesting. Though I don’t see history repeating itself in that respect, I also don’t foresee a catastrophic, I-will-turn-the-game-off-in-the-third-quarter blowout. Nevada should win, but I believe UNLV — like it’s shown for much of the season — will be more competitive than their record suggests. Nevada 34, UNLV 24 (Season record: 4-3)