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Rebels on dangerous ground against unconventional San Diego State

Finding a quality kicker in soccer-rich Southern California shouldn’t be hard, but San Diego State doesn’t have anyone it can depend on to win a football game.

Or make a field goal of any length.

In some odd way, however, the lack of such a kicker plays right into the ideal scenario Aztecs coach Rocky Long envisions, giving him the ability to live out his dream of going all out all the time.

And that’s part of what makes today’s 7:30 p.m. game against the Aztecs (7-4, 6-1 Mountain West) at Sam Boyd Stadium so dangerous for UNLV (6-5, 4-3). The Rebels know once San Diego State crosses their 40-yard line, they have to defend four downs and not three.

“It makes me get closer to what I really want to do but the football manuals tell you not to do,” Long said. “I’m serious. I want to play a game like the high school coach in Arkansas (Kevin Kelley). Maybe I’ll do it next year. He never kicks. He never punts. He never kicks extra points. He never kicks field goals. He kicks off, but every kickoff is an onside kick.

“I’d love to play a game like that, and we’re pretty close to doing that.”

UNLV hopes it is close to playing in a bowl for the first time since 2000. The Rebels’ chances of playing in a Mountain West-affiliated bowl became a little more dicey after San Jose State upset Fresno State 62-52 on Friday to give the conference six eligible teams for six slots.

Colorado State (6-6) and Wyoming (5-6) have the chance to become eligible today. The Rams host Air Force (2-9), and Wyoming visits Utah State (7-4). Both games are at 11 a.m. PST.

If there are more eligible teams than bowl slots, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson will try to find an at-large spot or two. The number of at-large openings will become clear after today’s games.

UNLV would make itself more marketable to a bowl with a victory over a San Diego State team that has won seven of its past eight games and has had plenty of success against the Rebels. UNLV hasn’t beaten the Aztecs since 2009, the final game for previous coach Mike Sanford.

“This is our fourth time, so I’m really anxious to play them,” linebacker Tim Hasson said. “This is one of the teams I really want to beat in my senior season, so I know I’ll be ready from the first snap.”

Hasson is one of 18 UNLV seniors who will take the field at Sam Boyd for the final time. They can clinch the school’s first winning season since the Rebels went 8-5 in 2000.

To beat San Diego State, the Rebels must deal with a team that constantly goes for it on fourth down.

The Aztecs’ porous kicking game forces the issue. Two Aztecs kickers have combined to miss five extra points, and they have failed to make their past seven field goals, with five of those from less than 40 yards. San Diego State hasn’t made a field goal since Sept. 28 at New Mexico State.

Part of the aggressiveness also is attributed to Long’s embrace of high-risk football, and his players have fed off that approach by orchestrating a nation-leading five fourth-quarter comebacks.

So, for UNLV, defending on three downs once San Diego State reaches Rebels territory won’t be enough.

“We know they’re going to be four downs most of the way in,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said. “They get to choose what they do. We know what they’ve done over the last month and a half in terms of how they’ve approached the 35 or 40 on in. That’s what we have to game plan off.”

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

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