Saturday's game between the Fresno State Bulldogs and the UNLV Rebels is a high stakes poker match between the two top teams in the West division of the Mountain West and only one team can emerge in first place.
The Bulldogs are set to host the Rebels coming off an important bye week and road victory. The Bulldogs enter the game as the nation's No. 17 team in the AP Poll, their highest ranking since 2005. The Rebels enter the game with a 4-2 record, their only losses coming to Arizona and Minnesota out of conference play.
Despite the fact that the Bulldogs and Rebels have played together in the Big West, WAC, and now Mountain West, this will be their first meeting since they were both members of the WAC in 1997. The Rebels are 4-11 all-time against the Bulldogs and have lost the last nine games the two teams have played.
Both teams have a similar opponent in Hawaii and both of them came out victorious. While the Bulldogs squandered away a massive third quarter lead that led to a much closer margin of victory, the Rebels had to rely on a last-minute field goal to escape with the victory.
The Bulldogs' improving defense has 13 sacks in their last two games and rank No. 4 nationally in both sacks allowed and team sacks. Additionally, the Bulldog defense is ranked No. 2 in the nation with 9.8 tackles for loss. Fresno St. has also forced a turnover in 18-straight games.
Meanwhile, UNLV possesses the league's top-rated pass defense, allowing only 165.8 yards a game through the air. The Rebels are averaging 447.2 yards of offense every games, but their defense allows an average of 36 points. Their record is actually a bit surprising since the Rebels only average 33.3 points per game on offense, but they were blown out rather handily in their first two games. Things like that tend to alter the statistics.
The Bulldog defense will be tested up-front. The Rebels average 199.7 rushing yards every game. As bad as the Bulldog defense has been at times, this actually plays to their strengths. Fresno State currently ranks 45th nationally in rushing defense. If there's a type of game the Bulldog defense could ask for as a challenge, this would be that game.
Fortunately, the Bulldogs possess a man responsible for more total offense than any man in the country save one. That man is quarterback Derek Carr and the other man is Oregon St. quarterback Sean Mannion, in case you were wondering. Carr is currently ranked second nationally in total offense, providing the Bulldogs with 384.4 yards of offense every time he takes the field. As mentioned earlier, Carr will have to get going early if he plans to break down the Rebel pass defense.
Carr needs only three TD passes and 33 completions to break the all-time school career records for both individual categories. As if that wasn't enough, he only needs 376 passing yards to eclipse the 10,000 mark in his career. If he can accomplish those feats against the league's top-rated pass defense, he will have earned them the hard way.
Carr might not have much to worry about with the guys he's had catching his passes, though. Davante Adams roared back to life against Idaho, catching 16 passes for 185 yards and three scores. A healthy Josh Harper has caught 33 passes for 301 yards, but seven of those catches were touchdowns. Isaiah Burse has truly broken out as a threat any time the ball is in his hands. Burse needs only 732 yards to become the Bulldogs' all-time leader in all-purpose yardage.
Perhaps even more important than the absurd numbers being put up by the man slinging the ball, Marteze Waller logged the first 100-yard rushing game the team has had all season. It also happened to be the first of his career and he picked a fine time to find his groove. Waller rushed for 157 yards and two scores against the Rebels. Fresno will need him to find his rhythm early to open up the passing lanes for Carr.
One thing that has helped the Bulldog defense get back on track has been the improved play of Jeremiah Toma and Patrick Su'a at the inside linebacker position. Su'a and Toma had impressive showings against the Vandals. Su'a had five tackles in the game and Toma had six tackles, three tackles for loss, and a sack for his part. Improved play at the ILB position will be critical against a running team like the Rebels.
Nikko Motta grabbed the first interception of his career and the first by a Bulldog defensive linemen since 2009. Motta also threw in five tackles, three tackles for a loss, two sacks, and a pass breakup for good measure. This is the kind of play the Bulldogs have been missing at times this season.
Though UNLV presents a fairly balanced squad - the Rebels are ranked No. 41 and No. 57 in rushing and passing offense, respectively - this Bulldog squad represents a different challenge than anything they have seen so far. The Rebels are also 5-35 all-time when facing a ranked opponent. The last time UNLV was able to upset a ranked opponent at home? November 10, 1984.
Look for the Bulldogs to build off their rushing attack last week. The Bulldogs will want to get Waller and Josh Quezada going early so they can free up Carr to do what he does best. This is a stingy pass defense, but the Rebels have not seen an aerial assault like the one possessed by Fresno State. In their two blowout losses, Minnesota and Arizona's quarterbacks combined to throw a grand total of 180 yards. Seriously, both teams combined did that.
The Bulldogs are moving up in the rankings and this means they're only going to get everybody's best. Which, if you ask them, seems to be totally fine. UNLV represents a litmus test for the Bulldogs to measure their growth against balanced and potent teams. With Northern Illinois nipping at the Bulldogs' heels, UNLV provides them with a decent opponent to gain some ground in the rankings. This is especially important
The Bulldogs should come away with the victory if they're able to execute properly and finish the game on defense. If not, this game has all the trappings of a potential upset. Though the Bulldogs have had their issues running the ball, they have not been content with their progress and have been working hard to improve in this area. UNLV presents a different challenge than Idaho, but this is a hurdle the Bulldogs can overcome.
Prediction: UNLV 22 - Fresno State 37
Stay tuned to FSBulldogs.com for more updates on the 2013 Fresno State Bulldog season.
Josh Webb is a special contributor to FSBulldogs.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @BulldogsTwist.