This looked to be one of the sure losses on UNLV’s football schedule.
That was the thinking before the season from analysts to oddsmakers to most fans.
But now deep into the season, the atmosphere is considerably different for both programs. UNLV (4-5) is fighting for its first bowl berth in four years, and the Cougars (2-8) are riding out their first losing season in 13 years.
And the Rebels are favored by 4½ points. ESPN2 will televise the game, which will be played at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Sam Boyd Stadium.
It’s an unusual spot for UNLV, which has never beaten the Cougars in Las Vegas. BYU owns a 16-3 series lead overall, with the three UNLV victories coming in Provo, Utah.
Rebels coach Tony Sanchez cautioned that BYU is still a dangerous team quite capable of rolling in and pulling off an upset.
“BYU’s having a tough season right now, but I know (coach) Kalani (Sitake) well … and he’ll get those guys ready to go,” Sanchez said. “It’s a little scary when you watch their games. They’ve lost quite a few games, but they’ve been close. So it’s a team you cannot take lightly.”
A victory is crucial for UNLV to become bowl eligible because the Rebels close the season with road games against New Mexico and UNR. All three of the Rebels’ remaining opponents have losing records, however, so a path to bowl eligibility remains even with a loss to BYU, but the margin for error disappears.
Johnny Stanton started at quarterback in both games, and he completed 63.6 percent of his passes for 399 yards and two touchdowns, with no interceptions. He will start against BYU, though Armani Rogers is expected to receive some snaps.
UNLV’s defense had gone from giving up 36.1 points per game through the first seven weeks to a total of 39 over the past two games. The Rebels are dealing with a series of injuries, however, with cornerback Jocquez Kalili (shoulder), linebacker Bailey Laolagi (shoulder) and end Jameer Outsey (ankle) questionable.
Kicker Evan Pantels continues to deal with a leg injury, but will play and his range limited to probably no more than 40 yards.
BYU has its own injury issues, with Tanner Mangum gone for the rest of the season with an Achilles injuries. Beau Hoge is expected to take his place, but might not see the field because of his own set of injuries.
“I would say more the offensive line will be more of a challenge than the quarterback,” UNLV defensive tackle Mike Hughes Jr. said. “We’ve seen what (Hoge) does. The scheme isn’t going to change at the end of the day. We’ll for sure have to keep him in the pocket.”
Given the history of this series, UNLV can never count on a victory over the Cougars. But if there is a ever a time to beat them, this is it.
“I think there’s going to be an opportunity out there on Friday night to get a win, but there’s also an opportunity for them to get a win,” Sanchez said. “So we’ve got to keep working on the little things and keep playing with a lot of energy and go out there and fight for a win.”