Utah State next hurdle in UNLV's bowl path

UNLV coach Bobby Hauck and his players genuinely were ticked off after they lost 34-24 to San Jose State last Saturday.

Didn’t matter that the Rebels needed nearly a miracle comeback to try to win.

They believed they were right there to pull off that rally, and they were.

Now the Rebels (5-4, 3-2 Mountain West) have the chance to channel that angry energy toward Utah State (5-4, 4-1) when the football teams meet at 5 p.m. today at Sam Boyd Stadium.

“We felt like we weren’t supposed to lose that game,” running back Tim Cornett said. “They came in, and they outplayed us. But we were upset about that.”

Cornett added a sense of urgency “is there this game. Going into practice, we were still mad about the game.”

UNLV needs one more victory to qualify for a bowl for the first time in 13 years, and the Rebels already are 0-1 in that effort with the loss to the Spartans. Winning tonight probably won’t be easy, either, with the Aggies favored by 15 points in a betting line that has moved only in their favor.

After tonight, the Rebels get a week off before preparing for a Thursday night game at Air Force on Nov. 21, a difficult place to play and at a time of year the temperatures could be frigid. And if the Rebels still are searching for bowl eligibility after that game, their final hope comes down to the Nov. 30 home meeting with San Diego State.

So UNLV fans should put any bowl plans on hold for now.

UNLV can end the suspense with an upset victory tonight, and the Rebels already have two upset wins this season. They beat New Mexico 56-42 as 1½-point underdogs and defeated UNR 27-22 as 6½-point ’dogs.

And the Rebels believe in themselves, something that hasn’t been true of recent UNLV teams this late in a season.

Whether that confidence is enough against a Utah State team that is strong on both sides of the ball will be answered tonight.

Utah State averages 36.8 points per game, averaging 203.2 yards rushing and 266.3 passing. The Aggies remain strong offensively even with the loss a month ago of star quarterback Chuckie Keeton to a season-ending knee injury. Freshman Darell Garretson led them to back-to-back routs over New Mexico and Hawaii entering tonight’s game.

“They’re pretty balanced and have the ability to hurt you both ways,” Hauck said.

Utah State’s offense is matched with a defense that easily is the league’s best, allowing 18.9 points and 342.2 yards. It’s an aggressive defense that has made 19 sacks while holding opposing running games to 3.1 yards per attempt and opposing quarterbacks to 54.2 percent passing.

The onus will be on UNLV quarterback Caleb Herring and Cornett to make plays, and both would love to respond after the loss to San Jose State in which Herring threw two interceptions and Cornett ran for 24 yards.

But Herring played well for the most part, providing UNLV with its running game by gaining 55 yards and by passing for 265 yards and two touchdowns.

Also, the two interceptions weren’t entirely his fault. Spartans cornerback Bene Benwikere made an outstanding play for one pick, and the other was a result of a bobbled pass by wide receiver Marcus Sullivan.

That fourth-quarter drop by Sullivan was critical because the Rebels, who had trailed 24-3 at halftime, had momentum and were driving for the potential game-tying touchdown.

No one pointed fingers at Sullivan, but it was clear by the Rebels’ tone after the game they believed one got away.

Tonight is their chance to get one back.

“Our preparation will be good this week,” Hauck said early in the week. “Everybody in (Lied Athletic Complex) is locked in and hopefully a little bit angry about the result on Saturday.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.