AP FILE PHOTO
Friday, Oct. 8, 2010 | 2:15 a.m.
UNLV vs. West Virginia
UNLV Rebels (1-4 overall, 1-1 MWC) vs. West Virginia Mountaineers (3-1 overall, 0-0 Big East)
Where: Milan Puskar Stadium (cap. 60,000)
When: 12:30 p.m.
Coaches: Bobby Hauck 1-4 in his first season at UNLV and 81-21 in eight overall seasons; Bill Stewart is 22-9 in his third season at West Virginia, which is his first head coaching job.
Series: First meeting.
Last time: N/A
Line: West Virginia by 27
TV/Radio: Fox 5/ESPN Radio 1100-AM
Rebel to watch: With star junior receiver Phillip Payne suspended and back in Las Vegas, fellow junior Michael Johnson has a prime opportunity as the team's top receiving option against a strong defense. He is tied with Payne for the team lead with 23 catches, and if he can get the ball in space, has a chance to showcase himself in front of a whole new set of eyes against one of the nation's speediest defenses.
Mountaineer to watch: Senior running back Noel Devine is one of the nation's most well-known ball-carriers, and is trying to bounce back from one of the worst games of his career. UNLV's run defense has been porous, and with Devine's speed, he could exploit the smallest of holes and make the Rebels pay for any mistake.
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Injuries have begun to pile up for the UNLV football team, as have the losses, now five games into a brutal 2010 schedule.
Things don't get any easier, either, for the Rebels (1-4). This weekend, they head off to face a rested and hungry West Virginia (3-1) squad in front of what is sure to be a sellout crowd of 60,000 at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, W.V.
A UNLV team that has struggled with the run game — both executing it and stopping it — now faces a team that ranks among the best in the nation in that department on both sides of the ball.
Here is a closer look at what will be the themes and storylines to watch when the Rebels meet the Mountaineers as nearly a four-touchdown underdog.
1) Devine intervention?
West Virginia star senior running back Noel Devine not only is expected to play despite a bone bruise on the bottom of his right foot, but he'll be hankering for a big day against UNLV.
In his last time out — a 20-14 loss at LSU on Sept. 25 — Devine was held to just 37 yards on 14 carries, as his speed was bottled up by a swarming defense. It was his lowest single-game production since being held to 17 yards on 12 carries against Pitt on Nov. 28, 2008.
A struggling Rebels run defense will have to figure something out quick.
UNLV ranks 105th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams against the run, succumbing 203.8 yards per game.
The problem, though, is that it's not as simple as just stopping Devine.
Sophomore Ryan Clarke has received a decent amount of carries to date and could see plenty more if Devine can't find his stride. Also, don't be shocked to see speedy slot receiver Jock Sanders get worked into the run game. He has only three carries this year, but has picked up 42 yards and head coach Bill Stewart hinted at the possibility of more to come earlier this week in a teleconference.
2) More with less
This could further handcuff an offense that has struggled to find a rhythm in its first five games.
UNLV's 107.6 rushing yards per game rank 98th in the FBS, but even tougher to work with is the 3.04 yards per carry the Rebels are gaining.
Meanwhile, West Virginia ranks 10th in the FBS against the run, allowing just 84.5 yards a game and 2.75 yards per tote.
That doesn't bode well for the Rebels, who not only are having trouble running the ball, but also keeping heat off senior quarterback Omar Clayton (Note: Clayton, who was listed as questionable with an undisclosed injury on this week's report, confirmed Thursday he will be ready to go come Saturday afternoon).
Without Payne available to help stretch out the secondary, the Rebels may need to rely on quick throws into the flats to move the chains consistently.
If Bobby Hauck does decide to go that route, expect junior Michael Johnson and emerging freshman Marcus Sullivan to see the ball a lot. Johnson's 23 catches are tied for the team lead, while Sullivan, like Johnson, is a speedy, possession-type slot receiver.
3) Beware the middle
While West Virginia's name-brand star power mostly resides on the offensive side of the ball, UNLV's staff has spent plenty of time this week game-planning for Mountaineer junior safety Robert Sands.
At 6-foot-5 and 221 pounds, he's almost a freak of a figure in the secondary, and expect to see him making plays all over the place.
In 2009, he tied for the team lead with five interceptions and was a first team All-Big East honoree.
On top of being a ballhawk, Sands is one of the nation's heaviest hitters.
He won't be easy to work around, and surely, if UNLV's backs find their way through the front line of West Virginia's defense, Sands will likely be waiting.
So far this season — which could be his last before jumping to the NFL — he's fourth on the team with 19 tackles, including 2.5 for loss, and a forced fumble.
4) A cool customer
Mountaineer sophomore quarterback Geno Smith, who is in his first full season as West Virginia's starter, has been pretty low-maintenance so far for the team's staff.
He's completing 65.4 percent of his passes and has thrown nine touchdown passes as opposed to only two interceptions. In the loss at LSU, in front of one of the nation's most hostile crowds, he was 14-of-29 for a pedestrian 119 yards, two TDs and one pick. It wasn't the most stellar performance, but in no way did he fold under pressure.
Working with a set of small, fast, shifty wide receivers, he projects to have a strong day against a UNLV defense that is not only depth-challenged, but dealing with a handful of notable injuries.
5) Collect the check
In a year when UNLV is running several younger players out onto the field and building for the future, there's certainly no shame in padding the finances at the same time.
The Rebels will be facing a West Virginia team that is both rested off a bye week and wanting to get sharp again before entering the meat of its Big East schedule.
In return for the challenge, UNLV will be paid $740,000 for the game that was scheduled by former athletic director — and West Virginia native — Mike Hamrick.