The San Jose State Spartans (2-3, 1-1 MWC) return to conference play by visiting the UNLV Rebels (2-3, 1-0 MWC) on Saturday. Dating back to 1995, San Jose State has a five-game winning streak against UNLV, most recently a 33-10 homecoming win on October 3, 2014. As UNLV currently sits in first place in the MWC West Division, this game (as well as San Diego State’s visit to Hawaii) will have implications for the MWC West crown.
This week’s game: The basics
Site: Sam Boyd Stadium (Whitney, Nev.; capacity 35,500)
Time: 6:00 p.m. (Pacific)
Streaming video: Mountain West Network on Campus Insiders, www.campusinsiders.com/network/mw/live
Radio: 1590 KLIV (San Jose) and Spartan Radio Network affiliates: 860 KTRB (San Francisco); 1460/101.1 KION (Salinas/Monterey/Santa Cruz); 1280 KWSX (Stockton); 1360 KFIV (Modesto).
Injuries: QB Kenny Potter (ankle) and LB Christian Tago (stinger) are questionable. RB Thomas Tucker (ankle) is doubtful.
UNLV: An overview
UNLV has long been among the worst in Division I FBS. Since 1986, UNLV football has had only five winning seasons. The 1996 season had 1 win. 1998 was winless. There were streaks of 2-win seasons from 2004 to 2007 and 2010 to 2012. In contrast, UNLV men’s basketball was far more successful during this time. Under legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian, the team made the Elite Eight round of the 1987 NCAA Tournament and won the national championship in 1990. Additionally, the program has remained a respectable mid-major with many winning seasons and postseason berths post-Tarkanian.
Under Bobby Hauck, who previously led Montana to multiple Division I FCS postseason berths (including twice in the championship round), UNLV had a 7-6 record in 2013 for its first winning season in 13 years. However, the team regressed to a 2-11 record in 2014, and Hauck resigned. Subsequently, UNLV hired Tony Sanchez to replace Hauck. Sanchez was previously head coach at Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas and won state titles in all six of his seasons there.
While Sanchez is well-respected locally, his resume is unusual for a first-year Division I head coach: one year as an undergraduate assistant at New Mexico State and 17 as a high school assistant or head coach. The career ladder for most college head coaches goes from graduate assistant, high school, and college full-time assistant before being a head coach. Think about Sanchez as the Arnold Schwarzenegger of college football coaches, because the action film star had no experience in elected office before becoming governor of California.
UNLV comes off a rivalry game victory, taking back the Fremont Cannon from in-state rival Nevada with a 23-17 win in Reno. Following an 0-3 start, UNLV has won two in a row, the first win being an 80-8 blowout over FCS Idaho State.
Because regular starter Blake Decker injured his non-throwing shoulder during the Nevada game, backup Kurt Palandech has been named starting quarterback against San Jose State. A sophomore, Palandech is a junior college transfer who previously played at Laney College in Oakland, Calif. In five games, Palandech has completed 20 of 38 passes for 119 yards, two touchdowns, and one interception and has rushed for 119 yards and one touchdown. After replacing Decker against Nevada, Palandech completed 6 of 8 passes for 48 yards and rushed for 29 yards and a touchdown. Like against Oregon State’s Seth Collins, San Jose State’s defensive line faces yet another running quarterback to contain.
The Rebel starting offense also features sophomore wide receiver Devonte Boyd, named Mountain West Freshman of the Year in 2014 for having 980 receiving yards and four touchdowns. Other returning starters on offense include senior left guard Eric Noone (6’2”, 295), sophomore left tackle Kyle Saxelid (6’7”, 270), senior tight end Jake Phillips (6’6”, 250), junior running back Keith Whitely (5’9”, 195), and senior fullback George Naufahu (6’0”, 215).
On defense, three linebackers return to the starting lineup: senior Najee Johnson (6’4”, 220), junior Ryan McAleenan (6’2”, 220), and sophomore Tau Lotulelei (6’1”, 230), in addition to senior defensive end Sonny Sanitoa (6’3”, 260), senior strong safety Peni Vea (6’1”, 205), and senior free safety Blake Richmond (6’3”, 205).
“They swarm the ball well, they tackle, they will bring a lot of people down in the box,” commented San Jose State head coach Ron Caragher on the Spartan Sports Report television show in praising the UNLV run defense.
Based on these comments, Tyler Ervin putting up many rushing yards against Fresno State and Auburn will not necessarily translate to a similar result against UNLV. This is not the same UNLV of the past that many MWC teams marked as guaranteed wins. Who knows if Tony Sanchez really can translate his high school success to the NCAA Division I level?
San Jose State: Keys to the game
With San Jose State yet to win on the road this season, this game presents the team its first chance of a road win. For a successful season, playing competitively in front of hostile crowds is important to secure a bowl berth. So far, San Jose State has shown competitiveness but not completeness at Oregon State and Auburn, largely because of frequent drive-killing turnovers. Last week against Auburn, San Jose State had four turnovers, two being forced fumbles and two from interceptions deflecting off intended receivers. Poor kickoff coverage did not help matters.
Caragher has indicated that he wants the result of the Auburn game to be a learning experience for his team and has shown an optimistic attitude. As the midway point of the season approaches, the time for improvements to show is now. In two victories at home, San Jose State has shown its potential, in scoring over 40 points each with victory margins of three or more possessions. So replicating such skills on the road should not be much to ask, if Caragher can follow through on his promises about his team’s growth.