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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. They are still giving up almost 30 points per game, but that's still better than giving up 40 or more every game. More importantly, they are making key stops and getting occasional turnovers. UNLV's run defense has been more than adequate, and they've managed to get pressure with 4-man rushes that have helped to contain opponents' short and intermediate pass games.

On the offensive side of the ball, UNLV has been running a potent rotational backfield, in which any back might explode for a 40 or 50 yard run at any moment. In the meantime, freshman quarterback Jayden Maiava has also been good as a replacement for Doug Brumfield. Brumfield was sidelined with injury early in the season, but also wasn't playing particularly well in his first few starts anyway. Maiava has played well, and will probably continue to be the starter even after Brumfield is fully healthy.

The result has been a 6-1 record and bowl eligibility, already, in October, with 5 games still left to play. UNLV's sole loss has been against Number 2 overall Michigan. And even then, UNLV covered the 35-point spread. Hell, I had Michigan on a 29 1/2-point super teaser (which was supposed to be my "guaranteed win my money back" parlay), and UNLV even managed to blow that parlay by covering that spread! In fact, UNLV actually received 4 votes for the Top 25 National Rankings in the AP Poll last week. They'll probably receive more this week, and might even sneak in and join Air Force in the top 25.

That is something that I didn't expect to ever see in my lifetime: UNLV being ranked in the Top 25! It seems unreal...

Air Force football
Photo credit: Associated Press
Air Force made it into the Top 25 last week, and UNLV may join them.

If UNLV does make it into the Top 25 this week or next, I doubt they'll stay there for long. UNLV has its hardest match-ups of the season yet to play, with games against Fresno State, Wyoming, and Air Force still to go. But they also have 2 more winnable games against New Mexico and San Jose State, in which UNLV will likely be double-digit favorites. So UNLV has a good chance to close out the season with 8 wins, and possible more if they can get an upset or 2.

UNLV is also currently at the number 2 spot in the Mountain West, which means a spot in the conference championship game is theirs to lose.

The good news is that throwing deep isn't exactly Air Force's specialty. UNLV's run defense has been solid, and might match up well against Air Force. If they can keep Air Force's triple option in check, and maybe get a turnover or 2, they might actually have a chance to beat Air Force. And if they can beat Air Force, they can potentially be Mountain West champions.

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