For us, we just have to find a way to win and compete and make it all work on Friday. —Kalani Sitake
PROVO — In its 39-year history as an FBS program, UNLV has played in a total of four bowl games, including two since 2000.
BYU’s streak of playing in 12 consecutive bowl games, meanwhile, has been snapped.
When the two teams meet Friday (8:30 p.m., MST, ESPN2) at Sam Boyd Stadium, the matchup features something of a role reversal as the Rebels (4-5) are fighting for bowl eligibility, needing two victories to play in the postseason.
UNLV is riding a two-game winning streak — with victories at Fresno State and at home against Hawaii — for the first time in two years.
“They’re playing well. They’ve won two in a row now,” said Cougar offensive coordinator Ty Detmer. “They’re playing for bowl contention and playing good, solid defense. They’re a sound team. They held Fresno to 16 (points) and they’re playing pretty good football the last couple of weeks. We’re going to see a spirited bunch, I’m sure.”
BYU coach Kalani Sitake knows that the possibility of getting to a bowl game is a big motivator.
“They gave it to Fresno State. They’re on a roll, too. They’re looking to beat us,” he said of UNLV. “Obviously, it did something for Fresno beating us. They became bowl eligible and they were really excited.”
BYU (2-8), with no bowl game on the horizon, is trying to finish a disastrous season on a semblance of a good note.
“For us, we just have to find a way to win and compete and make it all work on Friday," Sitake said.
UNLV coach Tony Sanchez, the former coach at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas, is in his third season. The Rebels posted records of 3-9 and 4-8 in the first two years under Sanchez.
Now his team is looking for two more wins to become bowl eligible.
“I think when all this noise happens and you’re sitting there and you’re struggling and not where you want to be, it’s real easy to panic and start changing everything and breaking everything apart,” Sanchez told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “We just kept coaching. We stayed consistent with the messaging. I think we’ve just grown up and matured, and at the end of the year for the first time, we’re actually becoming a better football team as we come to the close.”
After facing BYU, UNLV plays New Mexico and Nevada on the road to finish the season.
Rebel senior quarterback Johnny Stanton has helped fuel its late-season success, leading UNLV to its last two wins in place of Armani Rogers, who suffered a concussion at Fresno State.
Prior to the win at FSU, UNLV had dropped three games in a row to San Diego State, Air Force and Utah State.
In six games, Stanton has completed 35 of 55 passes for 399 yards. He’s also rushed 23 times for 65 yards.
UNLV’s identity is running the football. The Rebels rank No. 13 in the nation in rushing offense, averaging 252.56 yards per game.
“They have a really big quarterback that can run downhill. It’s going to be a challenge for us,” Sitake said. “But defensively, this should be something they’re looking forward to — a team that’s committed to running the ball and basically shoving the ball right down your throat. It will make us men, I can tell you that. The D-tackles have got to be stout and stop the run. They’ve got to be the big factors in this game.”
Running back Lexington Thomas has rushed 162 times for 1,063 yards and 14 touchdowns this season.
“We have to be tough up front. The front seven has to shut them down,” said BYU defensive lineman Trajan Pili, a Las Vegas native. “We want them to pass. We want to rush the quarterback and crush the pocket. It all starts up front. It’s up to us to stop the run.”
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Cougars on the air
at UNLV (4-5)
Friday, 8:30 p.m. MDT Sam Boyd Stadium
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM