BYU (5-4, 2-2 home) rolls into its home matchup against hapless UNLV (2-8, 1-5 MW) on Saturday a prohibitive 26-point favorite. There is very little, even given the Cougars' recent four game skid, to suggest that BYU will struggle at all against the Rebels this weekend. BYU hasn't lost to UNLV since 2004, and even then that was a close contest in Gary Crowton's final year at the helm of the Cougar program. UNLV ranks near the bottom of the Bowl Subdivision in nearly every defensive and offensive category, and should provide little resistance in the Cougars' bid to become bowl eligible and close out the season with a winning record.
A win on Saturday will allow BYU to punch their ticket to the Miami Beach Bowl in December, and will help provide a bit of validation in a season where the team has been searching for an offensive identity following the loss of Taysom Hill four weeks ago. BYU suffered another blow against Middle Tennessee State two weeks ago when Jamaal Williams, the most talented player left on the roster, and a motivational dynamo, went down for the season with a knee injury. The Cougars will sorely miss Williams and the chip on his shoulder down the stretch, particularly in two weeks against Cal.
In the meantime, the Cougars will rely on a running back by committee approach to provide consistency on the ground with fresh legs. Even though establishing the run game for the Cougars will be a priority, they should look to go to the air early and often against a porous UNLV defense.The continual pounding up the middle by the big BYU backs should leave the UNLV defense especially susceptible to the play action pass. BYU has wideouts who can both stretch the field, and create separation with their strengths and their bodies on these types of plays. One player who BYU should see a lot more production from in this game is senior transfer Jordan Leslie.
Leslie has been tantalizingly close to several deep passes by Christian Stewart ever since the Utah State game. It's a shame that the quarterback hasn't been able to hit Leslie at the most opportune times, because Leslie has been open. He's gotten quite a bit of separation, particularly on corner routes, and the balls have often been overthrown. Despite being second on the team with 41 receptions and 497 yards, Leslie only has two touchdowns on the season.
In order for the Cougars to reach their full offensive potential this season, Stewart needs to hit Leslie when he gets separation down the field. I think he will finally be able to have the time in the pocket that he needs to settle down and hit the open Leslie in play action situations down the field. Look for the passing game to have a big day. There should be even more opportunities for Leslie and Stewart to connect his week as UNLV will sell out to stop the run and force BYU to beat them through the air. If the Cougars can attack them effectively on the edge with a stacked box, it will be a long day for the Rebels. By mixing in a good balance of run and pass, the Cougars should be able to keep the Rebels defense off balance, and put up big numbers this week en route to an easy win and bowl eligibility.
Leslie shares his thoughts on the bye week and the next game here:
(Youtube, Salt Lake Tribune)