University of Nevada, Las Vegas

I really didn't think this would happen, but UNLV is back to 2nd place in the Mountain West Conference after Fresno State was blown out by San Jose State last night. UNLV is now a full game ahead of Fresno State with only 2 games left on the schedule.

Next week is a matchup against Air Force, who still holds onto the number 1 position in the conference. But, Air Force has looked vulnerable lately, decisively losing to both Army and Hawai'i in the past 2 weeks. What seemed like a sure loss for UNLV earlier in the season is now a very winnable game for UNLV. UNLV's rush defense is one of the team's strengths, and Air Force almost exclusively runs the Flexbone Triple Option.

If UNLV can beat Air Force on the road, it will move UNLV up to the number 1 spot in the conference and give UNLV a tie-breaker against Air Force for home field advantage in the Mountain West Championship. In fact, if UNLV beats Air Force, I think the only way they could be eliminated from the Conference Championship is if they lose to San Jose State, and also Fresno State wins its last 2 games. Fresno's last 2 games are against New Mexico and San Diego State, and both are very winnable games for Fresno.

San Jose is a bit of a surprise contender themselves, having won 4 straight against New Mexico, Utah State, Hawai'i, and Fresno. A win against UNLV in the final week of the regular season could potentially give San Jose a conference championship birth. Suddenly, the matchup against San Jose is actually looking even more worrisome than the matchup against Air Force.

These upcoming games against Air Force and San Jose are going to be among the most important games in UNLV's football history, and will certainly be the biggest games of head coach Barry Odom's inaugural year with UNLV.

I'm hoping to be able to see UNLV host a Mountain West Conference Championship at Allegiant Stadium!

If UNLV makes a conference championship appearance, I fully intend to attend the game. I honestly never expected to see UNLV competing for a conference championship in my lifetime, so whether it be here at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, or at Colorado Springs, Fresno, Boise, or San Jose, I intend to be there.

I'll also be tentatively planning on attending any bowl game that UNLV gets invited to, so long as the trip is affordable. If UNLV goes to the Hawai'i Bowl, I might not be able to afford tickets, since I was stuck having to pay for some expensive home repairs due to storm damage that insurance refused to cover (thank you, climate change!), and then also bought a new gaming PC so that I can play Cities: Skylines II. So I may not have the disposable cash on hand right now to afford plane tickets to Hawai'i. Hopefully UNLV gets an invite to a bowl here in the contiguous states, such that a much less-expensive road trip is viable.

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University of Nevada, Las Vegas

UNLV's decision to fire Marcus Arroyo and replace him with Barry Odom as the football head coach has certainly proven to be a good decision. I was afraid that the unexpected firing would result in UNLV having to reset its year-to-year improvements under Arroyo and start over as a bottom-dweller in the conference. That hasn't been the case. UNLV has continued its upwards climb and has exceeded all possible expectations in 2023, culminating with a 25-23 comeback win against Colorado State yesterday. That win gave UNLV its 6th win of the season, which makes them bowl-eligible -- and it's only halfway through the season!

I fully expect UNLV's kicker Jose Pizano to receive Mountain West special teams Player of the Week honors this week. The senior transfer set a school record by hitting on all 6 field goal attempts, including the game-winner. He has been fantastic all year. I thought it would be hard to fill the shoes of Daniel Gutierrez, who graduated last year, but Pizano has done the job admirably.

UNLV has impressed me with its hard play for the past 2 or 3 years under Arroyo, but the team is playing with a greater intensity under Odom. What has truly impressed me is that the defense is actually halfway decent. For many years, UNLV has been hiring offensive-minded head coaches, with the goal of having exciting, high-scoring offenses. The problem has been that even when UNLV has had offenses that score 30 or more points per game, they've had defenses that give up 40 or 50.

UNLV football - Jose Pizano
Photo credit: Madeline Carter (Las Vegas Review Journal).
Jose Pizano deserve Mountain West Player of the Week honors
after setting a school record and hitting a game-winning field goal.

The biggest weakness has been UNLV's deep pass coverage. Teams routinely torch UNLV for deep passes and scores. That, unfortunately is still mostly true. If UNLV is going to get beat, it's with the deep ball. Honestly, I don't know why opposing teams even bother running any plays other than deep passes. I feel a team could run 4 or 5 verts every play, and would hit enough of them that it wouldn't matter how many end up incomplete. But overall, the defense being competent has actually been the biggest surprise of the year, to me. But UNLV's run defense has been more than adequate, and they've managed to get pressure with 4-man rushes that have helped defenses contain opponents' short and intermediate pass games.

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University of Nevada, Las Vegas

2022 was an unusually disappointing season for UNLV football. Every year is a disappointing season for UNLV, but the hot 4-1 start gave us fans and alumni actual hope that UNLV could be a contender in the Mountain West. Then injuries happened, and UNLV only won a single game in the second half of the season to close out with a 5 and 7 record.

After blowout losses to San Jose State and Air Force while starting quarterback Doug Brumfield (and several wide receivers and defensive leaders) sat out with injury, an embarrassing loss to a 2-win Hawai'i team in the penultimate game that guaranteed a losing season and no bowl game, and barely pulling off a last-second win against a 2-win Nevada team, UNLV's athletic director decided to fire head coach Marcus Arroyo after only 3 seasons. The decision is understandable, even if a bit sudden. Completely blundering the second half of the season after such a hot start is bad. Losing that must-win game against Hawai'i (one of the worst teams in the conference) was inexcusable. I get why the new athletic director decided to fire Arroyo.

I get it. But I don't really agree with it.

Marcus Arroyo
Photo credit: Steel Brooks, LV Review Journal.
Marcus Arroyo has not had much success as UNLV's head coach, but does he deserve to be fired?

Competitive losses

Yeah, this season ended in disappointment, but Arroyo's team has seen steady and consistent improvement in its 3 years. I, personally, don't hold the COVID-shortened 2020 season against Arroyo. He was coming into a tough position. A former offensive coordinator with no head coaching experience coming into a pandemic situation in his first year with a perennial losing team. Business closures prevented the team from holding many of the normal training activities. Yeah sure, every team around the country was dealing with COVID as well, but only a handful of them were doing so with a brand new coaching staff, which made Arroyo and UNLV's position particularly disadvantaged.

2021 showed incremental progress, in terms of win-loss record, with UNLV only winning 2 games. But that 2021 UNLV team (which started out 0-6, by the way), was surprisingly competitive in almost all of its losses, which lead me to call them "the best 0-6 team that I've ever seen". Many of those losses in 2021 were by a single score, with UNLV playing competitive football well into the 4th quarter. That was impressive considering that I was used to seeing previous UNLV teams come out completely flat to start the second half, and only get worse as the games would progress into the 4th quarter. They weren't winning, but Arroyo had his players playing! Every. Single. Game. And that was something that I hadn't really seen before.

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University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Last year, I said that UNLV was the best 0-6 football team I had ever seen. Well this year, in 2022, the team has finally turned that competitive spirit into actual wins, and UNLV's football team has earned its first 3-1 start of the current century. Considering that the Mountain West isn't quite as strong of a conference as it has been in years past, this UNLV team might even have a chance at contending for the conference title if they keep playing like they are currently. Boise State and San Diego State aren't the dominant teams that they used to be, and UNLV just closed out a convincing 2-score victory at the home of the defending conference champs, Utah State.

I almost can't believe I'm saying this, but UNLV actually looks good!

Most of the success lies on the arm and legs of sophomore quarterback Doug Brumfield. Brumfield showed flashes of promise last year, but was plagued with injuries. He has absolutely taken over the offense this season as the unquestioned starter. He has been throwing pinpoint-accurate passes down the field, and is making mostly smart decisions with the football. So far, he has only thrown a single interception, which happened to be in UNLV's only loss so far this season. When there's no one open downfield, Brumfield has been good about checking down to underneath receivers or taking off and running (he has 4 running touchdowns to go along with his 8 passing TDs). He isn't forcing balls into coverage and sabotaging scoring opportunities with avoidable turnovers.

Doug Brumfield
Photo credit: Lucas Peltier, UNLV Athletics.
Sophomore quarterback Doug Brumfield has been playing mistake-free football.

Though Brumfield has been a big part of UNLV's success, it isn't all him. In general, the offense has been moving pretty well. Discounting the loss to Cal, this offense has been putting up an average of 48 points per game. Part of that production has been on the ground with redshirt junior running back Aidan Robbins carrying the bulk of the load in the rushing attack. He has big shoes to fill after years of Lexington Thomas and Charles Williams cutting through and barreling over opposing defenses.

Robbins has been adequate so far as a substitute for Charles Williams. His stats on the season look really good, with over 400 rushing yards and 7 touchdowns in 4 games. But half of those yards came from a standout performance against North Texas, in which Robbins rushed for over 220 yards and 3 touchdowns. Robbins has been sharing carries with change-of-pace back Courtney Reese, who has had some explosive plays, but not scores yet.

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University of Nevada, Las Vegas

It's really weird to feel good about a team that is 0-6 on the season, but that is kind of how I feel about this 2021 UNLV football team. Their latest loss is a 4th quarter collapse against Utah State by a score of 28-24. UNLV seemed in control throughout almost the entire game until the 4th quarter. The offense was moving the ball with Charles Williams putting up over 200 yards rushing, and backup QB Cameron Friel was looking good -- up until about midway through the third quarter, when Utah State's defense tightened up, started keying entirely on the run, and UNLV couldn't move the ball. In the meantime, Utah State pivoted their offense more towards the run, and even though UNLV's defense had been stout against the run earlier in the game, they suddenly started giving up big plays on the ground.

I thought for sure that a Utah State comeback would be through the air. UNLV's zone defense had huge gaps between the linebackers and safeties, and Utah State's receivers were finding those soft spots all throughout the first half. UNLV either needed to soften their zone coverages, and let Utah State have the underneath throws, or they needed to switch to more man coverage. But I didn't really get to see whether either of those adjustments would make a difference, since Utah State focused so heavily on the run in the second half.

Utah State rushing TD
Photo credit: Steve Marcus, Las Vegas Sun.
UNLV had stuffed the run the entire first half, but Utah State powered through to win in the 4th.

This is the fourth game this season that UNLV has lost by one score, and the fifth game in which they've covered the point spread. Two of those games were against ranked opponents. Despite not having won a single game yet this year, this UNLV team is not getting blown out in the way that they have in years' past. I'm used to seeing scores like 45-20, in which the game is over by the start of the 4th quarter. This year though, UNLV has had a chance to win the game right up to the final drive. Despite the winless record, this feels like an improvement.

This leaves me in the confusing and frustrating position of wondering whether this 0-6 UNLV team is actually "good" -- or at least better than their 0-6 record would indicate.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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