Published November 20, 2014
The last time Boise State and UNLV squared off was 34 years ago when the Broncos routed the Rebels 45-14, the last in a six-game series that stretched from 1972-77.
The schools will rekindle that old rivalry in Las Vegas on Saturday, but anyone expecting that No. 5 Boise State's new membership in the Mountain West Conference means a long-term renewal of the matchup should reconsider.
The conference-hopping Broncos appear to be on the move again, this time to a reconstituted Big East Conference that promises more revenue and a guarantee to BCS games.
Chris Petersen, head coach of the undefeated Broncos, insists all the conference chatter and buzz that intensified this week isn't a distraction for him or anyone else inside the locker room. Boise State has yet to receive a formal invitation to join the Big East, but on Thursday trustees on the State Board of Education gave the university permission to join the league.
School administrators and athletic officials "keep me in the loop with what we need to know and what they're thinking," Petersen said. "That's totally good enough for me. I've got more than enough to try and figure out."
So do the Rebels (2-5, 1-1 MWC).
UNLV is coming off a 38-35 victory over Colorado State, one with eight lead changes and decided in the final minutes on quarterback Caleb Herring's 5-yard touchdown run with 1:20 remaining that put the Rebels in front. The defense cemented the win in the final seconds when linebacker Tani Maka picked off a deflected pass at the Rebels' 28-yard line.
After being benched earlier this season, Herring entered the game late in the first quarter. He's expected to start Saturday after showing the leadership and ability to move the offense throughout the game.
But Maka is one of five UNLV players suspended for disciplinary reasons by coach Tim Hauck this week. As if facing a team considered a 41-point favorite by odds makers in their own town wasn't enough, the Rebels' defense will have to try to stop Kellen Moore, Doug Martin and the rest of the high-scoring Boise State offense without Maka, the team's leader in tackles (42) and interceptions (2), and junior linebacker Princeton Jackson.
Others sitting out include running back Tim Cornett, who is averaging 5.5 yards per carry and has four touchdowns.
Houck didn't share details of his decision, but he clearly understood the challenge facing his team before announcing the suspensions Wednesday.
"Our team has a tremendous task ahead of us this week in facing a top 5 team in Boise State, but it is also a tremendous opportunity for us," Houck told reporters Monday. "I would say we need to play much closer to perfect than we have to date in order to win. We're not afraid to say that."
The Broncos are coming off a bye week, time used to get players healthy and focused on special teams and tackling — two areas Petersen's team struggled with in their last outing, a 37-26 victory over Air Force. The Falcons, one of the teams being courted by Big East executives, gouged Boise State's defense for 264 yards on the ground, the most allowed all season.
The defensive line should see the return of lineman Chase Baker, who has missed the last two games with a calf strain. But the run defense will get another tough test from freshman running back Dionza Bradford, who has rushed for more than 100 yards in each of the last two games.
"The extra practices really just allowed us to concentrate on the things we need to do to get better," Petersen said. "It's always the fundamentals. How you tackle. How you get off blocks. All of those things are what we wanted to be improving upon."
If history is any indication, Boise State will make the kind of fixes that make differences in games. In Petersen's six years as head coach, the Broncos are 22-2 when they have more than 10 days to prepare for opponents, including bowl games and season openers.
The game could also include a little history making.
Broncos quarterback Kellen Moore needs one more victory to put him atop the all-time list for most wins by a college quarterback. With 45 under his belt, Moore is now in a tie for first with former Texas star Colt McCoy.
Moore has played down the record all season, content instead to credit the coaches and teammates who have made so many wins possible. But teammates such as Tyler Shoemaker, who has 28 catches and nine touchdowns this season, say Moore's nonchalance is the real deal.
"I've talked to him about stats, and I think he understands and is appreciative of what he's done here," Shoemaker said. "But, really, he's more worried about UNLV and winning that game than how many he's won in his career."