Now it’s for real.
Not that Nevada’s first four nonconference games of the season haven’t mattered, but games become drastically more important starting Saturday. Sure, it’s the Wolf Pack’s Mountain West opener, but of almost equal weight, it’s the Battle for the Fremont Cannon.
UNLV comes to Mackay Stadium to play its in-state rival, which wrapped up its nonconference slate last Saturday with a 24-21 win at Buffalo to improve to 2-2 on the young season.
The Rebels come in fresh off their first win of the season, an obscene 80-8 home win over Idaho State of the FCS.
UNLV coach Tony Sanchez will be coaching his second football game in Reno in less than 10 months. Last December, he coached Bishop Gorman to win over Reed in the state title game. He is the third coach in NCAA history to leap straight from the high school level to the Div. I ranks.
Nevada rolled UNLV 49-27 last year in Las Vegas to get the Cannon back after losing to the Rebels 27-22 in coach Brian Polian’s inaugural season.
About the Rebels
Coach: Tony Sanchez (first season)
2014 Finish: 2-11, 1-7 (last in MW—West)
2015 Record: 1-3
Quarterback: Senior Blake Decker returns behind center for the Rebels after throwing for 222 yards a season ago. Four games into this season, he’s seen a dip in production, throwing for nearly 142 yards a game with five touchdowns compared with three interceptions. Decker leads a Rebels’ passing attack that ranks eighth in the Mountain West—one spot ahead of Nevada.
Dangerous Weapons: The Rebels have placed an emphasis on the run game this year, outrushing their opponents by nearly 200 yards this season. Keith Whitely is the team’s leading rusher. He’s carried the rock 58 times for 270 yards but has found the end zone just once. Xzaviar Campbell is the team’s changeup in the backfield. His 24 carries are the second-highest total on the team but still far fewer than Whitley. However, he’s averaging 8.9 yards per carry compared to Whitley’s 4.6 yards per touch. Devonte Boyd is the team’s biggest home run threat through the air, catching three touchdowns this season on just 12 receptions for a team-high 231 yards.
What to look for
-There will be running. Nevada’s run game again looked impressive last week as James Butler and Don Jackson both surpassed the 100-yard mark. The Wolf Pack’s rushing attack is ranked fourth in the conference (210.5 ypg) and should find some success against the Rebels, who are allowing 200 yards a game on the ground—ninth in the conference. Conversely, UNLV’s rushing attack is ranked third in the MW (238 ypg) and will square up against Nevada’s eighth-ranked rushing defense (193 ypg).
-There will be more running. Nevada junior quarterback Tyler Stewart has taken care of the ball this season, throwing just two interceptions, but he will be throwing at a UNLV defense that sits atop the MW, alongside Boise State, with eight interceptions. The Rebels’ +5 turnover margin also leads the conference.
-Pack has advantage in the red zone. As expected, Nevada’s offense hasn’t exactly forced the sports information department to consider putting a third digit on the Mackay Stadium scoreboard. The Wolf Pack is scoring a mundane 25.5 points per game after four contests. However, scoring on 13-of-14 red zone opportunities, Nevada has the No. 2 red zone offense in the MW. UNLV has the conference’s second-worse red zone defense.
-There is no doubt Polian remembers losing to UNLV at home two years ago in his first season at Nevada. Demonstrating no shortage of emotion this season, Polian’s demeanor will once again be a side story with paying attention to. Rivalry games are always important. The same can undoubtedly be said about starting 1-0 in conference play. Will Polian keep his cards close to his chest? Or will he let all in attendance ogle his hand?
The Wolf Pack opened as an 11-point favorite on Sunday, a number larger than anticipated by most but that number quickly shrunk. Despite its unattractive 1-3 record, UNLV pushed Northern Illinois (which nearly stunned No. 1 Ohio State two weeks ago) in its opener before falling 38-30. The Rebels also gave Michigan a game at the Big House two weeks in a 28-7 loss. Both teams are good at running the ball. Both are mediocre at stopping it. It’s earlier in the season than most would like, but it should have the same late-season drama.
Nevada 34, UNLV 31