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UNLV football:

Rebels and freshman QB face big challenge at San Diego State

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV head coach Tony Sanchez counsels QB Dalton Sneed (18) on the sideline versus Fresno State at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016.

Undersized and overlooked, UNLV quarterback Dalton Sneed and San Diego State running back Donnel Pumphrey didn’t have a lot of college options. Now one of them will likely be the key to winning or losing Saturday’s matchup.

Pumphrey, a Canyon Springs High grad, enters Saturday’s game as the nation’s leading rusher, long ago proving his worth despite being listed at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds. On the other side is Sneed, listed at 6-0 and 190 pounds, with only one career start to his name trying to prove that his turnover-free, highlight-driven game travels on the road.

UNLV (2-3, 1-0) and San Diego State (3-1, 0-0) kick off at 7:32 p.m. in Qualcomm Stadium and will air on ESPNU. The Aztecs are 14.5-point favorites.

A little before 10 p.m. last Saturday, Sneed set local Twitter ablaze and reached Sportscenter’s Top 10 plays of the night with a 91-yard touchdown run after he was nearly tackled in the end zone. The highlight made the rounds and got lots of attention, including from SDSU coach Rocky Long.

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UNLV QB Dalton Sneed (18) is caught from behind after another run along the sidelines by Fresno State defenders at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016.

“I thought that was one of the most amazing plays I’ve ever seen,” Long said. “He should have been tackled probably two or three times behind the line of scrimmage and one for a safety, and then he outran everybody.

“… I think he believes, when he is running the ball, he’s not a quarterback. I think he believes he is a running back. He’s not looking for a place to slide or fall down, he’s looking for a touchdown.”

That’s a pretty good description of Sneed as a runner. In a memorable play at an August scrimmage, one of the few times UNLV’s defense could put an actual hit on the quarterbacks, Sneed went straight at a pair of defenders and broke through them for a touchdown.

Too much contact isn’t a good thing for the Rebels, who have had three quarterbacks miss time because of injury over the last season and a half, but the attacking mentality behind it is exactly what they want. It’s part of the reason coach Tony Sanchez decided to keep Sneed, who despite setting multiple Arizona high school career records had no other Division I offers and was the only commit to then-coach Bobby Hauck.

“He had a little bit of the It factor, you saw some of that this last game,” Sanchez said. “… Once we got to know him and he came here that first spring, we knew that he was a guy that would fit right in personality-wise. It’s such a big deal at that position, you’ve got to have some swagger.”

Sneed said he gets most of that from his parents, Mike, a Phoenix firefighter, and Tracey, a Southwest Airlines flight attendant. They raised him to be competitive in everything, Sneed said, and together they enjoyed an emotional celebration after last Saturday’s victory.

Now the page flips to a much tougher opponent on the road, and the most important thing Sneed said he took away from his debut wasn’t the big run or any other play he made. It was what the offense didn’t do.

“Biggest thing was no turnovers,” Sneed said. “Leading up to that game that’s what’s hurt us the most.”

Former starter Johnny Stanton threw six interceptions in UNLV’s three losses. Other than that the production between Stanton and Sneed wasn’t that dissimilar, those are just such important mistakes especially when facing an uphill battle as an underdog.

The Rebel Room

Rushing Forward

The Rebels are 1-0 in Mountain West play and this week they head to San Diego State as 14-point underdogs. Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer and reporters Case Keefer and Taylor Bern discuss their expectations for freshman quarterback Dalton Sneed's second start and how the nation's No. 9 rushing offense will do against the No. 14 rushing defense.

Sneed credited an easy to follow gameplan from offensive coordinator Barney Cotton for putting him in positions to make the simple plays. The game plan will be similar at SDSU with a premium on controlling the ball to keep it away from the Aztecs.

While Sneed’s future is uncertain, Pumphrey represents the pinnacle of a player proving size isn’t everything. Once passed over by Hauck at UNLV and a multitude of other programs who thought he was just too small, Pumphrey is having a great senior season to cap a career that, to date, has seen him pile up 5,022 rushing yards, 5,969 all-purpose yards and 53 rushing touchdowns.

“They find so many different creative ways to get him the football in space. That’s where the issue lies, him in space,” Sanchez said. “You’ve got to rally to him. First guy’s got to wrap and then the troops have got to come running, because he gets an inch he’s a tough guy to bring down.”

UNLV defensive tackle Mike Hughes Jr. saw the early version of Pumphrey in a pair of high school matchups before the upgraded version broke Marshall Faulk’s all-time SDSU rushing record earlier this season. He was a good player, Hughes said, but there were only glimpses back then of the ability Pumphrey has used to rank first in rushing yards (187.5 per game), second in all-purpose yards (206 per game) and third in rushing touchdowns (eight) this season.

“What he’s doing now, from playing him back then, I never would have thought he’d be this,” Hughes said. “… He definitely developed. He’s a great player.”

Greatness comes in all shapes and sizes. Pumphrey became great and has helped SDSU accomplish a lot, including its current 11-game Mountain West winning streak.

Sneed’s debut was really good. Now the Rebels will start to find out what he can really do.

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

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