Rebels football:

UNLV Gameday: Road trip to New Mexico will define Rebels’ season

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Barry Wong / Special to the Sun

UNLV junior running back Adonis Smith dives into the end zone for a score in the fourth quarter against Western Illinois at Sam Boyd Stadium Saturday, Sept. 21, 2013.

This is the most important game of UNLV’s season, and despite what coach Bobby Hauck would tell you it’s not just because it’s the next one.

The road trip to New Mexico (1-2), where the Rebels (2-2) will kick off their Mountain West slate at 5 p.m. Las Vegas time Saturday, has been circled for many months. And it still matters because UNLV will arrive in its expected position at .500.

The game will be televised on ROOT Sports, which is available locally on dish services but not cable, and will stream for free online at UNLVRebels.com.

If UNLV still can’t win on the road, even against a bad team like the Lobos, then its ceiling will remain low. However, win this one and suddenly victories at mediocre/bad places like UNR and Air Force later this year seem plausible.

It has to start here, though. This is essentially the same New Mexico team that UNLV pasted 35-7 last year, so to turn around and lose would be devastating.

THREE STORYLINES

1. Help at receiver?

Despite not playing a single down this season because of what Hauck has deemed a personal issue, junior receiver Marcus Sullivan has taken a larger role in practice this week and could even make his debut this weekend.

At this point that’s only speculation because Hauck has not offered any more insight into the situation. If he’s not quite ready, Sullivan would have the bye week to catch up before coming back at home against Hawaii in October.

If he does play, Sullivan offers the offense balance in the passing game. So far, the Rebels don’t have a great option to run opposite of leading receiver Devante Davis, who’s averaging more than 17 yards per reception.

2. Two quarterbacks

While the Rebels are unlikely to use two quarterbacks again unless it’s a blowout, New Mexico is all but guaranteed to use both junior Clayton Mitchem and sophomore Cole Gautsche.

“We’re kind of a two-headed deal again,” Lobos coach Bob Davie said. “Cole, just the way he operates in the triple-option, gives us that little edge that made a difference in the second half at Pitt versus the first half when he didn’t play. And then Clayton Mitchem continues to develop and continues to improve.”

Neither one is much of a threat in the passing game — together they combine for 76.3 yards per game — but any throw from this team is almost an accident. New Mexico is looking to run almost every down. And because of that this looks like a …

3. Great matchup for UNLV

Whether you buy the defensive numbers thus far or not, the Rebels are probably better off when not facing a great passing team. Sure, Arizona tore them up on the ground, but UNLV has recent success against triple-option teams.

Both of the victories last season — against New Mexico and Air Force — were against teams that don't often throw the ball. Facing a running back as talented as the Lobos’ Kasey Carrier is always a risky proposition but the Rebels would likely take that over some of the league’s great quarterbacks they’ll see later this season.

Key Matchup

UNLV’s linebackers vs. UNM’s backfield

The defensive front is obviously crucial to stopping the run, too, but the difference between holding New Mexico to short gains and giving up big ones will be the linebackers.

The Lobos’ runners will get to the second level often simply because they have so many blockers in front of them. The Rebels’ linebackers (and secondary) will be challenged to make tackles that prevent big gains. If they succeed, UNLV should, too.

Over/Under: 100 rushing yards for Carrier

The Lobos’ senior running back can go off at any time. He had nearly 300 rushing yards in New Mexico’s victory at UTEP and last year eclipsed 100 yards in seven games.

He had only 52 in the Lobos’ blowout loss to UNLV, though, and stopping him really does limit everything else for the Rebels.

That’s what he said: “It’d be nice not to answer these questions (three) weeks from now.” — Hauck on the road losing streak

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

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