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Running theme dogs Rebels

UNLV’s defense hasn’t stopped a running game in nearly two months. It should get plenty of chances to do just that against New Mexico’s Rodney Ferguson tonight.

Ferguson, one of the Mountain West Conference’s top running backs, leads the Lobos (4-6, 2-4) into Sam Boyd Stadium for a 7 p.m. game against the Rebels (3-6, 0-5). The loser will be eliminated from bowl contention.

"It’s a must-win for both teams," said UNLV coach Mike Sanford, whose team enters on a five-game losing streak and a 12-game league skid.

The Rebels must win their final three games to become bowl eligible and will have to beat New Mexico behind redshirt freshman quarterback Mike Clausen, who makes his first career start.

The Lobos can relate. Their starter, Donovan Porterie, suffered a season-ending knee injury Sept. 20 at Tulsa. Redshirt freshman Brad Gruner, who started the past six games, averages only 88.1 yards passing.

Ferguson has carried the offense, averaging 4.9 yards per rush and 99.7 per game, and is 103 yards from gaining 1,000 for the third season in a row. He keys a rushing attack that averages 212.2 yards a game.

"If we’re able to run the ball, we have a chance to win," Lobos coach Rocky Long said. "If we’re not able to run the ball, we have no chance to win."

But slowing New Mexico’s offense isn’t as simple as lining up to stop the run, UNLV defensive coordinator Dennis Therrell said.

"They have lots of shifts and formations, and they’ll throw the screen pass if you load up the box," Therrell said. "But they make their living running the football."

That’s a problem for the Rebels, whose past five opponents each broke 200 yards rushing. Iowa State, which gained 151 yards Sept. 20, was the last opponent to fall short of that mark.

"We can’t pay attention to what the other team’s stats might say," Ferguson said. "They could stiffen up this week and be great. We’ve just got to focus on ourselves. We’re not a good enough offense to say we’re going to come in and dominate anybody."

And there are signs that UNLV’s run defense is making positive strides. Texas Christian, for example, had only one running play longer than 15 yards against the Rebels’ starters last Saturday and another gain of more than 15 yards against the backups.

UNLV also has been getting back key defenders from injury. Middle linebacker Ronnie Paulo returned last week, and end Thor Pili and outside linebacker Beau Orth came back this week.

"You’re able to make more calls," Therrell said. "When you start losing players, you have to cut the game plan way down."

No matter who is on the field, the Rebels can’t let Ferguson seize control. Not if UNLV wants a shot at a bowl berth in two weeks.

"He kind of runs like Shaun Alexander," Rebels defensive tackle Jacob Hales said, referring to the former NFL Most Valuable Player. "(Ferguson) doesn’t just get the ball and run downhill. He’s a smart running back. He reads his blocks well and picks his hole. We’ve got to stay in our gaps and play sound defense."

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914.

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