Published January 13, 2015
Fresno, CA (SportsNetwork.com) - For the first time in nearly a month, the 17th-ranked Fresno State Bulldogs will be playing in front of the hometown crowd this weekend when they entertain the UNLV Rebels in Mountain West Conference action.
Seeking their first 6-0 start in more than a decade, the Bulldogs are also trying to record their 11th consecutive regular-season win as well. Fresno State last took the field on Oct. 5 in Moscow, Idaho versus the Vandals and crushed its former league mates in a 61-14 final. The Bulldogs have scored no fewer than 40 points in every game this season, achieving the feat in all 10 of the last regular-season bouts as well.
FSU is not the only team in the MWC making waves this season though, as UNLV finds itself tied with both the Bulldogs and San Diego State Aztecs for first place in the West Division standings entering the week. Over the three previous seasons, all under head coach Bobby Hauck, the Rebels have won no more than two games, so having already doubled that output is certainly an accomplishment for the squad from Sin City.
Since dropping the first two games of the 2013 schedule against Minnesota (51-23) and Arizona (58-13), the UNLV defense has tightened up and the offense has become more proficient in claiming four straight victories. Last weekend, the team needed a field goal at the end of regulation to claim a 39-37 triumph over visiting Hawaii.
Not only is this the first time in more than a decade the Rebels are enjoying a four-game win streak, it is the first time since Randall Cunningham was the quarterback (1984) that the team has achieved the feat during the regular season.
"For the kids in our uniforms here this a little bit of new territory, we're going to enjoy the heck out of it," Hauck said after the latest victory. "Obviously going on the road for the next couple weeks, we're solely focused on Fresno and that's shaping up to be a big game there."
The teams have not played each other since 1997 when Fresno State captured a 46-28 win, pushing its lead in the all-time series to 11-4. The Bulldogs are 10-2 versus UNLV when the programs are members of the same conference (Big West, Western Athletic, and now the MWC).
UNLV owned a 36-17 advantage early in the fourth quarter before the defense surrendered three touchdowns in a span of just seven minutes, but all that did was set the stage for Nolan Kohorst's game-winning, 44-yard field goal as time expired. For Kohorst, who connected on all four of his field goal attempts, it was the first game-winning kick of his career as the team moved to 4-2 on the campaign.
"I've never hit a game winner, so I didn't know what to do," Kohorst said. "I just ran one way, and my teammates ran toward me and found me too."
Caleb Herring connected on 34-of-57 passes for 385 yards and a score, surviving three sacks and an interception, as Marcus Sullivan reeled in 11 balls for 113 yards and Devante Davis generated 141 yards on eight receptions. Before tossing that one pick, Herring broke UNLV's record of consecutive pass attempts without an interception (183), tying the MWC mark as well. Running back Tim Cornett tacked on a game-high 162 yards and two touchdowns on 29 carries.
Cornett now needs just 41 yards to become the all-time leading rusher in UNLV history, surpassing the 3,149 yards produced by Mike Thomas back in 1973-74 when the school played at the Division II level. Cornett is also second to Thomas in career touchdowns (32) and rushing TDs (29), so there are even more accolades awaiting the running back as the season progresses.
Over on the defensive side of the ball the Rebels possess, on paper at least, the eighth-best pass defense in the country, permitting a mere 165.8 ypg, the group posting an efficiency rating of 99.45, which is 10th in the country as well. UNLV has had some trouble stopping the run, giving up 259.0 ypg to rank 119th in the FBS, but a lot of that has to do with earlier opponents that ran the ball almost exclusively.
In the case of the Fresno State offense, clearly the leader in that group is standout quarterback Derek Carr who is one of the nation's top passers with an average of 372.8 ypg, and when you consider he hasn't played all four quarters of every contest, that number could easily be much higher.
Carr now needs just three TD passes and 33 completions to break Fresno State's all-time records in those two categories. He also needs just 376 yards passing to reach 10,000 for his career. Making his job that much easier are Davante Adams and Josh Harper, who are both tied for fourth nationally with seven touchdown catches apiece.
Unfortunately for Carr and the Bulldogs, while the offense continues to cruise from week to week, the defense tends to make outcomes a little closer than they should be. After five games the unit is 114th in the country with 301.4 ypg allowed through the air, and that has led to 33.4 ppg being scored by the opposition, a number that is 103rd in the nation this week.
With the 108th-ranked scoring defense in the country, giving up 36.0 ppg, the Rebels cannot afford to get into a shootout with Fresno State this weekend. The pass defense for UNLV has been very strong to this point, but if Carr gets into a rhythm in the first half the unit could easily be demoralized, so the Rebels have to be careful about being too confident in their secondary.
"They've got a really good defense," Carr says of the Rebels. "I know their defense because that's what I watch and that's what I've been preparing for two weeks now. They're very talented, they run around, they play hard -- it says a lot about, when you turn the film on, you see a team playing with effort because it says what they feel and care about their coach."