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Nevada football vs. UNLV: A position preview and prediction

Nevada football
Cole Turner and the Nevada football team play UNLV on Saturday. (Kyle Pulek/Nevada athletics)

Nevada Sports Net columnist Chris Murray breaks down Nevada’s game against UNLV with a position-by-position analysis.

UNLV (3-8, 1-6 MW) at Nevada (7-4, 4-3 MW)

When: Saturday, noon

Where: Mackay Stadium (capacity 27,000)

Surface: FieldTurf

Weather: High of 34; low of 24 (50 percent chance of precipitation)

TV/Radio: AT&T SportsNet/94.5 FM

Betting line: Nevada by 7; total of 52

All-time series: Nevada leads 26-18

Last game: UNLV won, 34-29 (Nov. 24, 2018 in Las Vegas)

Position-by-position

Quarterback: Carson Strong’s season has really been split into two seasons, and he’s been strong in his second four-game starting stretch, completing 67.9 percent of his passes for an average of 213.3 yards per game with six touchdowns to two interceptions. UNLV’s Kenyon Oblad hasn’t been as efficient (52.8 percent completions) but has been more explosive and has 15 touchdowns and nine picks. Edge: Nevada

Running backs: UNLV junior Charles Williams leads the MW in rushing yards (1,119) and is second in rushing touchdowns (10) while averaging 5.8 yards per carry (fourth among qualified MW backs). He’s small but shifty. Nevada’s Toa Taua had one of the best games of his career at Fresno State and has an outside chance of hitting 1,000 yards; he sits at 716 with two games left (assuming a bowl). Edge: UNLV

Wide receivers/tight end: The Rebels’ top option is 6-foot-4 sophomore Randal Grimes, who has 44 catches for 696 yards and seven touchdowns. Noah Bean is one of the better tight ends in the MW. Nevada’s Romeo Doubs (shoulder) is questionable. If he plays, edge to Nevada. If he doesn’t play, edge to UNLV. If he’s out, Nevada will be down two of its starting three wide receivers. Edge: Nevada

Offensive line: Nevada’s line is coming off its best game this year as the Wolf Pack rushed for 254 yards after averaging 136.6 in its first 10 games. UNLV’s run defense is atrocious, so Nevada should have success on the ground again. UNLV’s line isn't as strong as it has been in recent seasons. The Rebels are rushing for 4.5 yards per carry (better than Nevada’s 3.5). Both lines have allowed 27 sacks. Edge: UNLV

Defensive line: Nevada’s defense line is peaking at the right time. It’s been really staunch in the run game and has been solid at getting some quarterback pressures. Dom Peterson, a Ted Hendricks Award watch list finalist, leads Nevada with 12.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks. UNLV is giving up 5.3 rushing yards per game and has just nine sacks, so this is one of the FBS’ worst defensive lines. Edge: Nevada

Linebackers: UNLV has a veteran linebacking corps built less on size than speed. Senior Javin White is UNLV’s best defensive player. He has 68 tackles, including 7.5 for loss, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. White had the game-sealing pick to finish Nevada last season. Florida transfer Rayshad Jackson (91 tackles, 11 TFL, two FF) also is good. The Wolf Pack’s Lawson Hall had a huge pick last week and Gabriel Sewell’s been playing well. Edge: UNLV

Secondary: Rebels senior Jericho Flowers is one of the best cornerbacks in the MW. He has four interceptions this season and seven in his career. The rest of the unit is average. This secondary has given up some big plays but it’s allowed just 15 pass touchdowns to nine interceptions with no pass rush to help it. Nevada’s secondary has played a lot better over the last month of the season. Edge: UNLV

Special teams: UNLV K Daniel Gutierrez has made 9-of-12 field goals. Gutierrez doesn’t get many touchbacks, so Nevada will have return chances. P Hayes Hicken (43.3 yards/punt) is good but UNLV has had two punts blocked (one returned for a touchdown). UNLV gets nothing from its return game and has allowed a kick return for a score. UNLV has one of the nation’s worst special teams unit. Edge: Nevada

Coaching: This will be Tony Sanchez’s final game as the Rebels' coach, ending his five-year tenure. If he leads his team to a win, Sanchez would finish with a 3-2 record against Nevada. Only two UNLV coaches have three-plus wins against Nevada (John Robinson, Tony Knap). Nevada’s Jay Norvell should be considered for MW coach of the year, although the award will go to Hawaii’s Nick Rolovich. Edge: Nevada

Prediction

Nevada 30, UNLV 20: It’s hard to predict exactly how UNLV will react to the news its coach has been fired. That could rally the troops and lead to an inspired performance, ala how Nevada played in 2016 when Brian Polian’s job was on the line (Polian was fired the day after a 45-10 win over the Rebels). Or UNLV could lay down knowing a coaching change is coming and uncertainty looms. This game has been highly unpredictable of late. UNLV won in 2018 as a 14-point underdog. Nevada won in 2017 as a 3.5-point underdog and 2016 as a 9.5-point underdog. UNLV won in 2015 as a six-point underdog and 2013 as a 6.5-point underdog. So the underdog has won the last four games in the rivalry and five of the last six. This game has been hard to peg in recent seasons, but I’ll take Nevada to win and to cover. The Wolf Pack is playing much better and UNLV simply isn’t very good. Record (straight up): 8-3. Record (against the spread): 8-2-1

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