Football: Bulldogs and Rebels square off with West Division at stake

No. 17 Fresno State, coming off its first true bye week of the season, enters the West Division-heavy part of its schedule, games that ultimately will decide the Bulldogs’ place in the inaugural Mountain West Conference Championship game on Dec. 7.

The slate starts with UNLV, a school that arguably is in the same position the Bulldogs were last season – in the process of a turnaround.

The Rebels (4-2, 2-0 Mountain West) have won four straight, including their first win on the road since 2009. And, like the Bulldogs, some of those games have been close ones:

• UNLV came back from a 21-0 deficit against Central Michigan to win its first game of the season 31-21 on Sept. 14.

• The Rebels won a 56-42 shootout at New Mexico Sept. 28 to snap a 23-game losing streak on the road.

• And then there was Saturday against Hawaii, where it took a 44-yard Nolan Kohorst field goal as time expired to give the Rebels a 39-37 victory.

Yeah, the Rebels’ wins this season have been close – games where UNLV had to come from behind, momentum-builders, said Bulldogs coach Tim DeRuyter.

“I think it went back to their Central Michigan game where they were down 21 at the half and found a way to come back and win,” DeRuyter said. “… There’s a certain moxie that you gain by learning how to win games that are tight.”

The Rebels defense leads the Mountain West in pass defense, holding opponents to 165 yards passing per game. Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr and the offense average 373 passing yards per game.

“We’ve got to be honest with ourselves,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck told reporters Monday.

“Fresno’s going to score some points – they do on everybody. To a degree, if we want to have any chance of winning the game, then we’re going to have to keep up.”

The Bulldogs will be facing a Rebels defense that is persistent in playing man coverage – situations that, much like Fresno State’s win over Idaho, might leave receivers in single coverage.

The Rebels defense has improved with the arrival of defensive coordinator Tim Hauck, an NFL veteran in his first year coaching alongside his brother.

“They’re playing better the last few weeks. They’re an even front team that plays a lot of man coverage. They like to pressure you. … We’re going to have to make some plays when its one-on-one, but it comes down to execution.

“They’re a team with a lot of confidence and momentum right now, and we’ve got to something to stop it.”

Fresno State and UNLV are currently tied for first place in the Mountain West’s West Division at 2-0.

The Bulldogs play three straight games against division opponents.

Of note:

— Fresno State moved up in both the AP Top 25 (from 21 to 17) rankings the USA Today Coaches Poll (from 22 to 19) during its bye week, a product of several Top 25 teams losing in upsets.

— Fresno State will be wearing “throwback” uniforms Saturday against UNLV featuring red helmets with the Bulldogs scripture. The Bulldogs and Rebels kick off at 7 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium.

— Saturday will be the first meeting between Fresno State and UNLV as members of the Mountain West Conference. The two teams did not meet in conference play last year, the Bulldogs inaugural season in the Mountain West.

— Also, Fresno State’s Oct. 26 game at San Diego State will be televised on ESPN2 with a 7:30 p.m. PT kickoff.

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