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Bowl Game Preview: UNLV

Kansas goes bowling in the desert.

NCAA Football: UNLV at Air Force Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

For just the second time in program history, the Jayhawks are going bowling in consecutive years. This time around, neither game is the Orange Bowl, but the tangible progress from Lawrence is enough to build plenty of excitement surrounding the Guaranteed Rate Bowl, a name I am trying very hard not to make fun of.

This bowl game was slated to be a matchup between the Big 12 and Big Ten, but things got weird during the bowl selection process this year, and while Kansas was largely expected to play Northwestern, they instead got matched up with UNLV out of the Mountain West. That came as a disappointment to many, since playing a G5 school you haven’t even read a word about all year cheapens the accomplishment of bowl qualification just a bit, but there’s more to the Rebels than meets the eye.

UNLV has been a nice little turnaround story of their own. Just two years ago they were 2-10 and things looked dim for a program never known for a high-level football program. Last year they saw some improvement, but after a 4-1 start, a six game losing streak derailed their season and they finished one win shy of bowl eligibility. This year they went out and got themselves a brand new football coach, which is where the fun begins. They signed none other than Missouri coaching flameout Barry Odom.

Odom peaked in his four years at Missouri with an 8-5 season, but was ultimately fired prior to their bowl game after a 6-6 performance the next year. He spent the following three seasons assuming various defensive position coaching jobs (as well the “associate head coach” title) at Arkansas, before getting the call to lead the program at UNLV in 2023.

Despite having a defensive-minded coach, UNLV’s calling card all year has been offense. In ESPN’s SP+ ratings, UNLV ranks 60th overall (Kansas is 31st by contrast), but their defense has been pretty dreadful, rating 98th among FBS teams. UNLV’s road to their current 9-4 record has contained a number of shootout-style games as they made their way to the Mountain West title game. They clipped past Vanderbilt 40-37. They beat the same Nevada team Kansas faced 45-27. They eked out a 27-25 win over Colorado State. Later, they won and lost a pair of back-to-back 31-27 matchups. Ultimately they landed in the MWC title game, but fell to Boise State 44-20.

Winning a lot of shootouts requires two things. Yes, a shaky defense is one of them, but on the flip side, you have to have an offense. And the analytic ratings agree that UNLV’s is genuinely solid. While SP+ puts their defense 98th in the country, not far from where KU’s frustrating 2022 defense landed, their offense is legit at 35th. Like Kansas, UNLV prefers to beat teams using an explosive running offense with big passing plays sprinkled in. They ran the ball 514 times compared to their 369 pass attempts, and they did it without a running quarterback to mess with the numbers.

However, their running game was more often simply effective than it was explosive, averaging 4.54 yards/run. That immediately reminds me of Texas Tech’s running game, which... ugh, nevermind. That game never happened. However, if KU can stop UNLV from consistently getting 4 and 5 yards on the ground each play and the Rebels have to pass, things could get interesting.

The Rebels’ QB is freshman Jayden Maiava has had mixed success this year, after taking over the starting job three games into the year. He can put up big yardage numbers, but does it through some shaky decision-making, which has led to a TD:INT ratio of 14:8. That said, he averages an excellent 8.8 yards/attempt, completing 62.9% of his passes for 2,794 yards in less than a full season.

There was some chaos in the program in the days following the loss to Boise State in the MWC Championship, as a recruiting website “broke” a story that Maiava intended to enter the transfer portal. After the poise he had shown leading a very strong UNLV offense as just a freshman, this was a shock to fans, teammates, and... well, to him. He never told anyone he was transferring and in fact is not doing so and will start in tonight’s game.

Though Maiava has a strong arm and will make plays with it during tonight’s game, he’s not known as a runner. At 6’4, 225 lbs, his height and weight are exactly the same as mine. I can only assume that means he’s exactly as fast as I am and if that’s true, then WOW the Kansas defense is going to get some sacks tonight. Kidding aside, Maiava ran for 261 yards and 3 TDs this year. Since sacks count against your college rushing numbers, this means Maiava isn’t slow, and Kansas can’t simply ignore him on 3rd-and-10. (I frequently wake up in the middle of the night from nightmares, with visions of Big 12 QBs from the last decade jogging for first downs on 3rd-and-long against Kansas defenses). Still, those aren’t the numbers of a track star QB, and Maiva looks to pass first, even if UNLV may sprinkle in some zone read at times.

Speaking of the zone read, one thing I noticed in watching highlights of the UNLV offense is how much they like to use it, either as a play call or a fake. I’m not knowledgeable enough to break down exactly what each play call is, but they seem to run a lot of RPO where Maiava gets the ball out of the shotgun, and has a quick decision to either hand the ball off going to one direction, or pull it back, roll out to the other side of the play where he frequently has some room, and looks for receivers 10-20 yards downfield. When they mix in actual zone reads, Maiava is just fast enough to get around the edge and pick up a few yards, so it puts defenses in limbo knowing the exact same look could end with very different outcomes.

Part of KU’s big defensive improvement this year has involved their increased ability to get into opposing backfields and disrupt plays. However, the Jayhawks will be without their primary disruptor in Austin Booker, and the UNLV offense might just be able to use that aggressiveness at the point of attack against them anyway, if Maiava can stay poised against a defense and secondary that’s much faster than anything he saw in the Mountain West this year.

Looking through the numbers, it’s hard to find real standout individual talents in this UNLV rushing attack. Senior RB Vincent Davis, Jr. led the team in rushing, but with 722 yards on less than 5.5 yards/carry. Solid numbers, but nothing horrifying for an opposing defense.

Despite UNLV establishing themselves as a running team, however, they do have a standout player in the receiver corps. Junior WR Ricky White, who recently assured fans that he is staying at UNLV and will be playing tonight, had an outstanding campaign with 81 catches for 1,386 yards and 7 TDs. Cobee Bryant and Mello Dotson are unlikely to be scared of White, but he’s still a player to watch. He has great burst and open field speed, and if he can make his first man miss, look out because he’s probably gone. At 6’1, 190 he doesn’t have an incredible build, and that should help the Kansas corners keep him from dominating the way he did in Mountain West play.

Prediction

If this were last year’s matchup I’d be more concerned. The KU defense in 2022 was abysmal, and a Mountain West school that puts up points would have me very worried. However, even without Booker, the Jayhawks have made such strides on that side of the ball that I don’t see a talented freshman QB and one big play receiver gashing Kansas to a UNLV victory.

I barely mentioned UNLV’s defense in this preview and that’s because they weren’t particularly good at anything this year. If Jason Bean can stay steady in his swan song game and make good decisions, UNLV won’t have the defensive personnel to bottle him and the receivers up, and they certainly won’t limit Devin Neal and Daniel Hishaw without loading up the box, which should only open up more chances Bean to use his legs and arm to rack up points on the Rebels.

Turnovers can always flip a game and are hard to predict, but outside of a turnover show, Kansas should win this game fairly easily. Shut down White on the outside and force UNLV to do some things they aren’t comfortable with, and the Rebels shouldn’t be able to score enough to beat the Jayhawks. I think we’ll see the first Kansas Bowl win since the 2008 team beat Minnesota in the Insight Bowl.

Kansas 42, UNLV 24