Rebels football:

UNLV an underdog Saturday at home against retooled Utah State

An injury to Aggies quarterback Chuckie Keeton could have spelled doom, but the team has held strong on both sides of the ball

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV quarterback Caleb Herring is chased by San Jose State linebacker Keith Smith, left, and tackle Eugene Taylor Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013 at Sam Boyd Stadium. San Jose State won the game 34-24.

The Rebels still rest on the precipice of bowl eligibility, needing only one victory to all-but guarantee their first postseason game since 2000. To get there this week, UNLV (5-4, 3-2) must take down Utah State (5-4, 4-1), which is also one victory from the same goal.

The game kicks off at 5 p.m. Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium. It will air on ESPNU.

Local sports books had the Aggies favored by at least two touchdowns as of Friday afternoon, and that could climb even higher as sharp bettors reportedly love Utah State this week. The number opened with UNLV at plus-12.5.

To pull off the upset, the Rebels need to get off to a better start. They’ve been very good this season at making halftime adjustments, but that doesn’t help as much if they’re in a big hole going into the break.

If UNLV keeps this close at halftime, the players and coaches will at least be confident that they’re capable of winning. Despite getting outscored by 49 in first quarters this season, the Rebels hold a 28-point advantage in third quarters.

That’s one thing to watch for in Saturday’s game. Here are a few others:

THREE STORYLINES

1. Life after Keeton

When Utah State junior quarterback Chuckie Keeton went down with a knee injury in the first half against BYU on Oct. 4, it seemed like it could end the Aggies’ season as well as his.

Keeton threw for a career-high 402 yards in Utah State’s victory against UNLV last season and the university even started a Heisman Trophy campaign for him this summer. At the time he went down, Keeton was completing 69.4 percent of his passes with 18 touchdowns and two interceptions. He was the key to the Aggies’ dismantling of San Jose State the week before and if he stayed healthy, Utah State would be the clear No. 2 team in the Mountain West.

However, even though he’s out for the year, the Aggies may still be no worse than the league’s third-best team. Freshman Darell Garretson has filled in admirably with a 66.7 completion percentage and 8.08 yards per pass attempt, a full yard higher than Keeton’s.

Senior running back Joey DeMartino has also helped pick up the slack, tallying five scores in three games since Keeton’s departure. And maybe the Aggies’ biggest key to surviving Keeton’s loss, other than games against bottom-feeders New Mexico and Hawaii, is their elite defense.

2. A case for the defense

The general storyline around UNLV’s last four games has been about a matchup of teams with good to great offenses and average to poor defenses. That’s not the case with Utah State, which ranks 16th in the nation in both total defense and scoring defense.

The Aggies have replaced Keeton’s production very well on offense, but that process has been much easier with a stifling defense that creates easy opportunities for the offense. Utah State is tied for 18th in the country in turnover margin.

Coming off a pair of beatdowns against inferior opponents, it’s tough to gauge exactly how good Utah State is. What’s more certain is that this is the best defense UNLV will face all season.

3. The little things

As at least a two-touchdown underdog, UNLV is going to need things to go just right to come up with the upset. Good thing then that the Rebels have a recent history of helping themselves in at least one category.

While a key turnover derailed UNLV’s comeback attempt last week, what they haven’t had many issues with are big penalties. That was a constant problem last season, but this year the Rebels are the second-least penalized team in the country with fewer than 30 penalty yards per game.

Turnovers and penalties are the quickest way to sabotage a game. UNLV takes care of business with penalties, so if it avoids turnovers, this game could be close in the fourth quarter.

Key Matchup

UNLV’s defensive vs. Utah State’s offensive line

The Rebels can’t afford to get run all over again. Shutting down San Jose State’s passing game wasn’t enough last week because UNLV allowed 312 rushing yards, and Utah State is capable of making the Rebels pay just the same. That’s why it’s so important for the defensive line to clog up the holes that were so wide open last week.

Over/Under: 1.5 takeaways for UNLV

The Rebels will need something extra to come away with a win. It’s unlikely they will be able to force enough defensive stops to get the job done, so they’ll need to create some extra chances. If they win the turnover battle by two or more, UNLV may have a shot.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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