The memories of Sunday night are fresh, the emotions still raw, and Sam Boyd Stadium will be a place to gather to remember, reflect and try to find some sense of normalcy.
For UNLV, it’s also important to be focused going against a San Diego State team that is ranked 19th nationally and appears on its way to a third consecutive Mountain West football championship.
The Rebels (2-2, 1-0 MW) could have something to say about those aspirations when the teams meet at 7:45 p.m. Saturday. San Diego State (5-0, 1-0) is a 9½-point favorite in a game that will be televised nationally on ESPN2.
“I feel like we all understand what the mission is for the week, and that’s to go out and put forth a great three hours for the city,” UNLV defensive tackle Mike Hughes Jr. said. “I know a victory here isn’t going to match the hurt, but if they can come for three hours and be happy throughout the game, it’s something that we did to help them.”
A pregame ceremony will honor the victims and acknowledge the first reponders, medical professionals and other heroes from the shooting massacre that shook the valley. Both teams will wear decals on their helmets with a red ribbon and “Las Vegas” written on it.
To beat San Diego State, the Rebels need to find a way to move the ball and score against Aztecs coach Rocky Long’s signature 3-3-5 defense that has long given UNLV trouble. This is a typically stout San Diego State unit, which is second in the conference in points allowed at 21.2 per game and yards allowed at 318.6.
“It will definitely be a big challenge,” UNLV wide receiver Devonte Boyd said. “We’re working on it at practice every day going against our scout team. They’re giving us a great look day in and day out. We’re watching film on it a lot, so we should be ready.”
UNLV answers with an offense that leads the Mountain West with 36.5 points per game and rushing with a 305.5-yard average. Running back Lexington Thomas averages 142.8 yards per game and 8.4 yards per carry.
The Rebels probably will need to keep up offensively in going against San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny, whose 164.6-yard rushing average leads the conference. He faces a UNLV defense that gives up 489.8 yards per game, second from the bottom in the Mountain West.
But it’s also a defense that shut out San Jose State over the second half of UNLV’s 41-13 victory last Saturday.
“I know they’re going to come out and play their best game because of who they’re playing against but also because of what happened (the shooting),” Penny said. “It’s going to be a very emotional game for them. We’re ready for the challenge.”
San Diego State is chasing a New Year’s Six bowl. Any bowl would be quite an accomplishment for UNLV, which is four years removed from its most recent postseason trip.
“San Diego State’s the standard,” Rebels coach Tony Sanchez said. “They’ve done a great job of building a program, of building a physical brand over there, so it’s a great measuring stick to see where you are. I remember a couple of years ago, and we played them the second to last game of the season (52-14 UNLV loss). The one thing that was so obvious to me was how far apart we were physically.
“So this is a great opportunity.”
UNLV vs. No. 19 San Diego State
When: 7:45 p.m. Saturday
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium
TV/Radio: ESPN2; KWWN (1100 AM, 100.9 FM)
Line: San Diego State -9½; total 57