If I said after last year's 35-13 rout of the UNLV Rebels in Romney Stadium that they would be a bowl-contending team next season, many people probably would have laughed at me. And rightly so.
The Rebels have been hurting for a long time. The last time they had a winning season was in 2000. Establishing consistency and winning meaningful games seemed like a pipe dream, especially with the constant coaching shuffles the program has endured.
Former Montana head coach Bobby Hauck took over UNLV's program in 2010 and struggled mightily, leading the Rebels through three consecutive 2-10 campaigns. Needless to say, the future prognosis looked extremely poor for the football team and Hauck's job security.
A season-opening shellacking by Minnesota only reinforced the notion of another miserable year for the program and its fans. The next week, Arizona's Ka'deem Carey ran roughshod over the hapless Rebel defense for 171 yards and two touchdowns in just 16 attempts, helping the Wildcats spank the Rebels 58-13. Hauck didn't even try to explain the loss away. No positives were to be found anywhere.
Then in week three, down 21-0 to Central Michigan halfway through the second quarter, UNLV decided enough was enough. Quarterback Nick Sherry got benched in favor of backup Caleb Herring and the Rebels finally rolled. They scored 31 unanswered points, winning 31-21 to tie for the largest comeback in school history. There appeared to be hope for UNLV after all.
This is an all too familiar situation for the Aggies. The similarities between this Rebel team and the 2011 Aggie squad are abundant. Both teams had lost a couple of hard games, but many of the contests came down to the wire. Both found a way to win tough, defensive games, and neither quit despite the odds.
And evidently, both programs have clearly risen. It's quite simple: Utah State, considering it was once in almost the same situation the Rebels are in now, cannot afford to overlook UNLV.
Since the Central Michigan game, the Rebels have collected victories over Western Illinois, New Mexico and Hawaii. They even recently toppled their in-state rival, the Nevada Wolfpack, snagging the coveted, 550-pound Fremont Cannon rivalry trophy for the first time in eight years.
Caleb Herring has shown he's a solid quarterback. Since taking over for Nick Sherry, Herring has thrown more than 1,500 yards for 13 touchdowns. He's only been picked off one time, so he makes good decisions with the ball. His play has helped lift the Rebels well above where they have been the last few seasons.
In pass-catching, Devante Davis is far and away Herring's favorite target. The junior wide receiver has caught 60 balls for 864 yards and 10 touchdowns. Behind Davis, though, the drop-off in production is precipitous. Wide receiver Marcus Sullivan has caught balls less than half as often as Davis, and he has just two touchdown receptions for the season.
On the ground, the Rebels have been pounding the rock frequently with senior running back Tim Cornett. He has helped make UNLV a more balanced team this season with 855 yards and 10 touchdowns on 171 carries. Though he hasn't broken out with many big runs, he does just enough to keep opposing defenses honest, just like USU's Joey DeMartino.
Despite strong offensive play most of the season, UNLV has struggled a lot on defense. Ka'Deem Carey blew several big holes open in the Arizona game, and even the pass-first San Jose State Spartans managed more than 300 rushing yards against the Rebels. The defense clearly got manhandled in both of those game, even if the score didn't necessarily show it.
The Aggies have shaken off the losses they had earlier in the season with resounding victories over New Mexico and now Hawaii. Quarterback Darrell Garretson threw for 370 yards, a new record for a freshman at USU, and three touchdowns against the Warriors. He's shown a lot of poise and is comfortably in control of the offense.
UNLV has shown a lot of fight and heart this season, but its defensive woes likely won't be fixed by the time it faces the Aggies' burgeoning offense. And if Tim Cornett can't put up reasonable rushing stats against the Aggie defense, it could get ugly fast for the Rebels. Most of their wins have been extremely close contests against bad teams, so they will have to step up in a big way to have a chance in this game.
Sam McConkie is a technical and professional writing graduate from Utah State University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org