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Aztecs push their luck into Las Vegas; But is the Rebels win streak real or a mirage?

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By SDSportsfiend (via twitter)

San Diego State won a thrilling nail-biter on Saturday vs Nevada to take control of the West Division lead in the Mountain West conference. In order for the Aztecs to play in the conference championship game on December 4th, the formula is simple: win the next 2 games and you’re in.

Next up on the Aztecs’ schedule is a trip to the desert to face UNLV at the Raiders’ brand-new stadium. The game is being played on Friday night with a late 8:30pm kickoff time on CBS Sports Network. The crowd for Friday night’s game will likely have a pro-Aztecs feel to it since the undefeated Running Rebels basketball team is playing #4 ranked Michigan at T-Mobile Arena an hour later. 

Luck of the Aztecs?

Vegas oddsmakers have the Aztecs as 11-point favorites at the time this article was written. It should be an easy game, right? Slow your roll. While it’s true the Rebels have a 2-8 record and are not even close to sniffing the postseason again, the last two teams who were favored against the Rebels went home holding an L. UNLV has been very competitive in many of their games: 5 losses were decided by one score. Have the Rebels been a bad team this season or just a little unlucky?

SDSU, on the other hand, has somehow found a way to win their close games going 5-0 in games decided by one score including 2 overtime wins in route to a 9-1 overall record. In several of those close contests, the Aztecs’ opponent had big plays literally slip through their hands. Whether it was the Air Force receiver dropping a sure touchdown, Carson Strong not seeing a wide-open receiver streaking up the left sideline on Nevada’s last offensive play or Utah’s game tying 2-point conversion being overruled by replay. It’s undeniable that Lady Luck has been on the Aztecs’ side all season long.

The saying that “great teams find a way to win” is true- but they also have to be a little lucky along the way. In SDSU’s case, the Aztec gods have been kind to say the least. But his matchup is more competitive than it appears on paper and has all the makings of a trap game with a huge regular season finale at home vs. Boise State looming on the horizon. SDSU must be disciplined, focused and ready to battle in order to leave Las Vegas on a 3 game-win streak. Let’s hope UNLV’s gimmick slot machine comes up lemons instead of jackpot bars for the Rebels on Friday night.

UNLV Offense

The MVP of UNLV’s victory last weekend over Hawaii was “super” senior running back Charles “Chuck Wagon” Williams who torched the Rainbow Warrior defense for 266 yards on 38 carries and 3 touchdowns. Those stats earned Williams a helmet sticker during the ESPN College Football Final show. This is the same Hawaii defense that ceded only 128 rushing yards to the Aztecs a week before.

Through its unstoppable run game, UNLV dominated the time of possession by more than 19 minutes vs. Hawaii. Williams is setting records left and right. His 38 rushing attempts vs Hawaii broke the school record set by Ickey Woods. Anyone remember the Ickey Shuffle back in 1989?

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Williams is 10th in FBS in rushing this season with 1089 yards and is #1 in career rushing among active FBS players with 4,029 yards. UNLV’s career rushing record holder has run the ball effectively in the last 2 games vs. the Aztecs (113 yards in 2019 and 80 yards in 2020). The Aztecs must be sound defensively in their run gaps and tackling of Williams. If he gets into the open, he could be a problem to bring down.

Williams has breakaway speed as he displayed in a 47-yard touchdown vs Hawaii and a 75-yard house call vs Utah State. SDSU defensive coordinator and Broyles Award nominee Kurt Mattix must design a gameplan that focuses on making Williams earn every yard he gets on the ground and to limit his explosive plays.

Cameron Friel leads the passing attack for UNLV. The 6’ 3” freshman took over the job after sophomore Doug Brumfield was hurt during the Fresno State game and he’s been the starter since. While Brumfield was more of a mobile QB, Friel prefers to operate in the pocket. He has 1,541 yard through the air with 6 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. Not very good numbers but he has completed 63% of his passes on the year. Did I mention he’s a pocket passer?

Friel has been sacked 24 times in 8 games for a total of 133 negative yards. Friel was on the losing end of what might be the most vicious hit on a QB I have seen in college football this year. On the second to last play of the San Jose State game with UNLV driving deep into the Spartans territory for the game tying score, Spartan linebacker Kyle Harmon came unblocked full speed off the edge and freight trained Friel. He had to be helped to his feet by teammates and with no timeouts UNLV was unable to get a final play off before time expired. Friel staggered to the sideline with help from his offensive line as Spartan players celebrated their victory. 

I give Cameron tremendous credit for taking a hit that literally rocked his world and getting back under center the next week vs. Nevada. You will not find a tougher player in college football than him.  UNLV coach Marcus Arroyo must have challenged his offensive line’s manhood because that unit has only given up 1 sack in the past 2 games- both Rebels victories. 

If Charles Williams isn’t toting the rock, then Cameron Friel is looking for his two favorite targets downfield in 6’0 sophomore Kyle Williams and 6’0 junior Steve Jenkins. Both have been very productive over the past 4 games considering the strength of UNLV’s offense is its running attack. The duo has caught 47 passes for 677 yards with 4 touchdowns during the 4-game stretch. 

Defense

In 8 losses, the UNLV defense gave up an average of 36 points. In their back-to-back wins over New Mexico and Hawaii they surrendered an average of 15 points. The two wins did come against teams with a combined 2 wins in conference play but to be fair the Aztecs aren’t exactly setting the college landscape on fire with their offensive production either. In 6 conference games, the SDSU offense is only averaging 21 points per game. UNLV will not give up points easily to the Aztecs.

The Rebel defense has been much better at stopping the run than stopping the pass. In conference play, UNLV has only allowed one 100-yard rusher- San Jose State QB Nick Nash who ran for 121 yards on 12 carries. It will be critical for Lucas Johnson to gash UNLV’s defense on the ground like Nash did to them as the Rebels sell out to stop Greg Bell & Co. between the tackles.

The strength of UNLV’s defense is in their linebacker corp. 6’2 230 lb. junior Jacoby Windmon is ranked 20th in FBS in total tackles with 91. He also has 8.5 tackles for loss and 3.5 sacks. He has recorded a sack in each of the last 2 games. Senior Austin Ajiake with 74 tackles and freshman Brennon Scott with a team high 4 sacks are also very disruptive linebackers but both didn’t play vs. Hawaii. It is unknown if they will be available against SDSU.

Not only are their linebackers talented but they’re a deep group, as junior Kyle Beaudry got significant playing time the last 2 games and recorded 20 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Senior Kylan Wilborn recorded 1 sack and 2 tackles for loss against Hawaii. In the secondary, Junior Phillip Hill leads all Rebels with 3 interceptions on the year. Sophomore Ricky Johnson had 2 picks vs. Hawaii. 

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Special Teams

Remember the 2019 SDSU vs UNLV game when kicker Daniel Gutierrez’s game tying field goal try late in the 4th quarter clanked off the right upright sending Aztec players and fans into a victorious frenzy? You know that kick is still in his head and he wants another shot at redemption this year. Let’s hope the game doesn’t come down to a Gutierrez field goal try again. He has been money this year going 14-16 on field goal tries with a long of 53 yards. 

Keys to the Game

Offensively it is going to be imperative that the Aztecs continue to keep teams guessing as to whether they are going to run the ball or throw it. I thought Lucas Johnson did a nice job of operating the offense vs. Nevada for a nice mix of run and pass plays. I liked the gutsiness of offensive coordinator Jeff Hecklinski to call the play action and TD pass to Daniel Bellinger on 4th down instead of kicking the field goal. Same goes for the 3rd down pass late in the game that fell incomplete to Tyrell Shavers.

The offense will need continued balance in their run/pass game to drive the field vs. UNLV and to take some shots downfield to soften up the Rebels’ defense. Johnson needs to be more of a threat to run the ball so that the Rebels can’t key in on stopping the Aztec running backs. Lucas only ran the ball 6 times vs. Nevada with 1 rush counted as a sack.

While UNLV sells out to stop the run, this would be a great opportunity to line up Jordan Byrd as a slot receiver and run him on a slant route. Give him just little bit of daylight on the other side of the line instead of running him between the tackles or around the end. With Jordan’s blazing speed it could be 6 for the visiting team (wink, wink, nod, nod, Coach Heck).

UNLV’s most recent victory last weekend over Hawai’i.

Defensively, the Aztecs are going to have to pressure the young Cameron Friel and force him to beat them with his arm. He has shown to be immobile and inaccurate at times. Mountain West defensive player of the week Cameron Thomas terrorized Nevada’s Carson Strong all night and finished with 10 tackles, 2 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. A similar output vs. UNLV should bode well for the Aztecs chances of leaving Las Vegas with a victory.

This matchup is favorable for the Aztec defense to get key turnovers that put up points or shorten the field for the offense. SDSU must account for Charles Williams on every play. The Aztec linebackers Michael Shawcroft, Andrew Aleki, Seyddrick Lakalaka are going to have to be sound in their gap responsibilities and their tackling of Williams. He’s tough to bring down. One whiff on a tackle of Williams and the UNLV sideline slot machine could be hitting the jackpot again. When Williams is carrying the rock, 11 hats need to fly to the ball with bad intentions to limit his production.

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On special teams, Ray Guy award semifinalist Matt Araiza just needs to keep doing what he’s been doing because no one has ever been able to do it before. Matt already owned the most 60-yard punts in college football history before the Nevada game and he added the most 50-yard punts during the game. The kid is so unbelievable as he continues to flip the field in the Aztecs favor while adding some clutch field goals as well. 

In the end, if there is yet another opportunity for Aztecs fans to travel to a fun destination game, this is it. So load up your cars with your Aztecs buddies, hit the desert and make this game a memorable night on the strip. The Aztecs basketball team has already turned the Thomas & Mack Center into Viejas in the desert. It’s time for the football team to turn this new Raiders stadium into Aztecs Stadium of Nevada Las Vegas!

Stay tuned this week for more as the Sons of Montezuma Podcast recaps the big Nevada victory and the upcoming UNLV game tomorrow! You can listen directly at sonsofmontezuma.com or be sure to follow on Spotify, iTunes, iHeart or wherever podcasts are distributed.

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