San Diego State Aztecs vs. UNLV Rebels
Allegiant Stadium – Las Vegas, NV
Kickoff: Friday, November 19 @ 8:30 pm
TV: CBS Sports Network
#19 San Diego State travels to Las Vegas Friday night to take on UNLV on their quest to win the 22nd conference championship in school history. After defeating Nevada on Saturday night, the Aztecs can clinch the West Division and earn a berth in the championship game with wins in their final two games.
The Aztecs 9-1 record matches their best 10-game start since their first year of Division I football in 1969. In addition to being ranked 19th in the College Football Playoff standings, the Aztecs are ranked 23rd in both major polls.
The game will be the Aztecs’ first opportunity to play at Allegiant Stadium, the new home of the Las Vegas Raiders, which also hosts UNLV home games. After finishing 0-6 with an average loss margin of 20 points last season, UNLV was picked to finish last in the West division and did not have a player named to the Preseason All-Conference Team.
In last season’s matchup, the Aztecs cruised to a 34-6 victory behind a dominant 287-yard rushing performance and a defense that recorded 14 tackles for loss and five sacks. Greg Bell led the offense with 111 rushing yards and a touchdown, while linebacker Caden McDonald added a career-high eight tackles and 2.5 sacks. The Aztecs have won the last two and six out of the previous seven against the Rebels.
The Aztecs are 11-point favorites in this game, but recent history should teach not to underestimate the Rebels. In 2018, the Aztecs were 23-point favorites against UNLV and controlled their destiny to win the West division as they currently do. After taking a 24-13 lead into the fourth quarter, the Aztecs gave up two touchdowns and lost 27-24.
Las Vegas native Daniel Bellinger, a backup tight end as a true freshman that season, recalled on Monday that they may have underestimated the Rebels that game, and they cannot do that this time around. Bellinger will be playing in his hometown for the second time after catching one pass for 20 yards at UNLV in 2019.
Team: UNLV Rebels
City: Las Vegas, NV
2021 Record: 2-8 (2-4)
Series Record Against SDSU: 10-20 (2 game losing streak)
Head coach Marcus Arroyo leads UNLV in his second year at the helm. Before UNLV, Arroyo ran the offense at Oregon for three years from 2017 through 2019. He also held offensive coaching roles at Oklahoma State, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Southern Mississippi, California, Wyoming, San Jose State, and Prairie View A&M dating back to 2003. Arroyo played quarterback at San Jose State from 1998 through 2002.
Arroyo’s tenure at UNLV got off to a rocky start. After a winless six-game 2020 COVID season, the Rebels began this season losing their first eight games.
The Rebels played a difficult four-game non-conference schedule. They were blown out against two Power 5 teams, Arizona State and Iowa State, but played close games against Eastern Washington (35-33 loss in double overtime) and UTSA (24-17). UTSA is undefeated and ranked 22th in the College Football Playoff rankings, three spots behind the Aztecs.
UNLV’s first three conference games against Fresno State, Utah State, and San Jose State were all close, one-score losses, as the Rebels showed improvements on both sides of the ball since the start of the season.
On Monday, Aztec head coach Brady Hoke said that while preparing for upcoming Aztec opponents this season, he watched film of games against UNLV and noticed their improvements from game to game as the season progressed. Aztec defensive lineman Cameron Thomas added, “I’ve watched them several times, and their record does not show how good they are.”
After a blowout loss at Nevada, 51-20, for their eighth consecutive loss to start the season, the Rebels defeated New Mexico and Hawaii by 14 points each the past two weeks.
Super senior (sixth year) running back Charles Williams is 11th in the nation with 1,089 rushing yards, adding three touchdowns. Williams holds UNLV’s career rushing mark and is only the fourth player in Mountain West Conference history to eclipse 4,000 rushing yards.
Against Hawaii, Williams earned the Mountain West Offensive Player of the Week honor by rushing for 266 yards on 38 carries and three touchdowns. Williams credits his offensive line, stating, “they have been improving every week and making sure they get to the second level.”
The offensive line has only allowed one sack in the past two games after allowing 32 in the first eight.
True freshman quarterback Cameron Friel, a 3-star prospect according to 247Sports, won the starting role after the fourth game of the season. Friel has passed for 1,541 yards, six touchdowns, and ten interceptions (six in the past three games).
Coach Arroyo spoke about the need to take care of the football better during his Monday press conference. Against Hawaii, Friel turned it over three times in the first quarter, but the Rebels defense held Hawaii to only three points off those turnovers. While the team overcame the mistakes against Hawaii, coach Arroyo admitted it would be much more difficult against San Diego State.
The Rebels’ best wide receiver, sophomore Kyle Williams, was named Freshman All-American Second Team by The Athletic and Mountain West Freshman of the Year last year. He caught 35 passes for 426 yards and two touchdowns, including three receptions for 33 yards in his collegiate debut against the Aztecs. Williams played quarterback in the early part of his high school days before switching to wide receiver. Williams has caught 40 passes for 594 yards and two touchdowns this season, including seven receptions for 137 yards against New Mexico two weeks ago.
Similar to the offense, the Rebels defense has also improved as the season has progressed. Senior linebacker Kylan Wilborn attributes the recent success to improved practices and better communication between the front and back ends of the defense. He added that his defense is looking forward to the challenge because the Aztecs will be “a good proving point for us.” Wilborn, a graduate transfer after three seasons at Arizona, has 29 total tackles and three tackles for loss on the season.
The defense has 11 sacks in the last two games after only recording eight in the first eight games. UNLV has two of the top tacklers in the nation as linebacker Austin Ajiake ranks 22nd at 9.2 per game while fellow linebacker Jacoby Windmon is tied for 24th at 9.0. Windmon has also forced two fumbles and collected 3.5 sacks.
Junior linebacker Kyle Beaudry has 20 total tackles, 1.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery in the last two games filling in for an injured Ajiake. Safety Phillip Hill leads the team with three interceptions.
The Aztec defense is coming off one of their best overall performances of the season, considering the opponent they played against. Nevada entered Saturday’s game averaging 36.4 points and 446.6 total yards per game but were held to 21 points and only 358 yards. The Aztecs allowed only eight rushing yards, tied for the 11th-fewest yards allowed in the school’s Division I history.
Entering this week’s game against UNLV, the Aztec defense is now fourth in FBS, allowing 82.9 rushing yards per game and ninth allowing 17.1 points and 305.7 total yards per game.
Junior defensive end Cameron Thomas, who added to his growing list of accolades by being named Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week, was part of the three-man rush that harassed Nevada quarterback Carson Strong all game. Thomas recorded ten tackles and a career-high three sacks. “We executed a great game plan by the defensive coaches, and the secondary helped me get those sacks since they were coverage sacks,” said Thomas. He also credited the trust built with his fellow defensive lineman, Keshawn Banks, and Jonah Tavai, which helped them succeed.
The Aztec offense played their best game in five weeks, led by starting quarterback Lucas Johnson’s 176 passing yards and a touchdown. Coach Hoke called it Johnson’s best game as an Aztec due to his decisiveness, ability to push up in the pocket, and committing zero turnovers.
Senior tight end Daniel Bellinger believes the offense’s breakthrough came from “settling down, trusting our quarterback more and bringing it all together.”
Another important factor in the last two games has been the ability of the offense to sustain drives and control the time of possession. The eight-minute per game advantage helped the Aztecs get early leads and keep the other team’s offense off the field.
Coach Arroyo told the media on Monday that the Aztecs are successful because they “play well together in their system, they are physical and finish games well.” The Aztecs are 5-0 this season in games decided by seven points or less, tied with Oklahoma for best record nationally.
“They execute and don’t beat themselves,” added coach Arroyo. The Aztecs played their cleanest game of the season against Nevada, committing only two penalties for 20 yards and no turnovers.
Coach Hoke called kicker/punter Matt Araiza the “MVP” of the team this week, not just because of the successful field goals and long punts, but the touchbacks on kickoffs that made a big difference with field position. Coach Hoke recalled one kickoff that a Nevada returner caught nine yards deep in the end zone and returned to the 15-yard line, ten yards less than a touchback.
Araiza continues to lead the nation with a potential record-setting 52.25 punt yard average. He broke FBS single-season records for most punts of 60+ yards (17) and 50+ yards (34) and has six punts of 70+ yards, four more than any other punter this season.
The Aztecs had a few players in the secondary banged up during the Nevada game. Warrior safety Cedarious Barfield came off the field in the first quarter with an apparent injury and was replaced by freshman CJ Baskerville. However, Barfield was able to sub in for a few plays late in the game. Aztec safety Patrick McMorris was also banged up but was able to finish the game. Coach Hoke was unsure on Monday whether both would be available for Friday’s game and said they would know more as the week progressed.
The Rebels have been without starting linebacker Austin Ajiake for the past two games, and his status is uncertain for this week.
Opponent’s San Diego Connection
- Freshman defensive lineman Sebastian Mcuigg attended Patrick Henry High