UNLV Intro: Courtesy of ESPN. The UNLV Rebels will be looking to pull off a big game bowl game upset against the Kansas Jayhawks in downtown Phoenix.

Rebel Run to Arizona

The UNLV football team is looking for its first bowl victory over a Big XII team on Dec. 26 against the high-scoring Kansas Jayhawks.
UNLV Teammates Image: Courtesy of Mountain West Connection. The UNLV football team is looking for its first bowl victory over a Big XII team on Dec. 26 against the high-scoring Kansas Jayhawks.

The surprise season for the UNLV Rebels (9-4) football team continues the day after Christmas when they play the Kansas Jayhawks (8-4) in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl at Chase Field in downtown Phoenix, the home of the National League Champion Arizona Diamondbacks of Major League Baseball.

After unexpectedly hosting the Mountain West Conference Championship game on Dec. 2 at Allegiant Stadium, the Rebels are preparing for their first bowl game since a loss to North Texas in the Dallas Bowl on Jan. 1, 2014. It is only the program’s fourth major bowl game overall, not counting a 1970s appearance in a Division II bowl game.

In this bowl game, the Rebels will be facing a high-scoring Kansas Jayhawk team that stars do-everything junior quarterback Jalon Daniels, not to be confused with the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jayden Daniels from Louisiana State University. It will be up to UNLV’s defensive linebacker leaders junior Jackson Woodward and sophomore Marsel McDuffie to make sure the Kansas receiving corps do not run wild as the high-scoring Big XII offense ran up at least 30 points in 10 of its 12 games.

Odom Overcoming the Odds

UNLV Turnover: Courtesy of Associated Press. The UNLV defense creating turnovers will be the key to beating Kansas in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.

As a nearly two-touchdown underdog to Kansas, UNLV has been fighting for respect and against the odds all season, so nothing will be new during the Dec. 26 matchup in Phoenix.

Kansas is a familiar foe for UNLV football head coach Barry Odom, the former head coach and player for the University of Missouri Tigers, having matched up against the school’s rival Kansas Jayhawks over a dozen times as a player, assistant coach, recruiter and head coach. That familiarity with the Jayhawks should prove a benefit to the Rebels.

Odom will have to identify how he will defend the Kansas deep passing game, in particularly deep crossing routes to confuse the secondary and straight ‘go’ routes to try to expose a speed advantage for the Kansas wide receivers, with four receivers that have at least 400 yards this season.

NLV QB Image: Courtesy of Seattle Times. UNLV quarterback Jayden Maiava has been named Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year and looks to build upon his award-winning season against the Kansas Jayhawks in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl in downtown Phoenix on Dec. 26.

On offense, the Rebels are going to have to keep the Jayhawks off-balance with a balanced passing and running attack that will be focused on Mountain West Conference Freshman of the Year quarterback Jayden Maiava, senior running back Vincent Davis, Jr. and junior wide receiver Ricky White. If the Rebels balance the passing and run games, making Kansas’ defense to think twice before blitzing, the Rebels could easily pull off the upset.

Special teams and field position could also determine the outcome of the game, with senior kicker Jose Pizano connecting on over 90 percent of his field goals all season.

Regional Rebels

With the UNLV athletic program making two appearances in Phoenix in less than two weeks, the program is actively expanding its brand throughout the southwest.

“It is about time the Rebels are starting to have more of a presence in the Arizona market,” says UNLV alumnus and Las Vegas-based entertainment consultant Richard Levine, who has also worked in the Phoenix market. “The program’s resources don’t stop at the border and we need to develop a regular pipeline of athletes from Phoenix to Las Vegas, and this is a perfect time to start.”

The Phoenix college landscape has shifted dramatically in the last decade with the March Madness runs by the Grand Canyon University men’s basketball team and the decline and revolving coaching door of the Arizona State University football team, leaving an opening for a regional expansion of relevance by the UNLV athletic program.

“Phoenix is not a Pacific 12 Conference market anymore (with Arizona State joining the Big XII in 2024), so everything is brand new and the market is wide open,” says Raul Monreal III, an Arizona State alumnus who works as a corporate technology manager. “UNLV is here in the bowl game not to just play ball, but to have the eyes and attention of the Phoenix sports scene focused on their program.”

A Rebels’ upset win over Kansas in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl would go a long way to building the brand in the Grand Canyon State.

Prediction: UNLV 31, Kansas 27