Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2022 | 2 a.m.
UNLV wrapped up the first half of the 2022 season Friday, and while the Rebels didn’t strike a high note — the Scarlet and Gray were dismantled at San Jose State, 40-7 — the big picture is much kinder to coach Marcus Arroyo’s team at this point on the calendar.
With six games remaining, let’s take a look at what we know about UNLV football:
They’re better than expected — maybe even good
UNLV got to four wins before the end of September, and if not for a couple plays here and there against Cal in Week 2, the Rebels could have five wins right now. Still, 4-2 at the midway point is much better than anyone expected, as evidenced by the projected 3.5 win total coming into the year.
Despite a record that is gaudy by UNLV’s standards, there’s a question of just how good this team really is. The teams UNLV has beaten so far have a cumulative record of 7-17, so yeah, they’ve knocked down some tomato cans. But the numbers show that UNLV is playing good football, regardless of the quality of competition; the Scarlet and Gray are currently No. 6 in the nation in turnover margin (+1.6 per game) and just outside the top 50 in points per game (No. 55, 28.8 per game) and sack rate (No. 52, 6.3%).
As of now, UNLV is the surprise team in the Mountain West.
They’re about to be tested
After easing into the year against some lollypop opponents, UNLV has now entered the difficult portion of the schedule. It started with a road tilt at San Jose State, and it doesn’t ease up over the next four games: vs. Air Force (Saturday), at Notre Dame (Oct. 22), at San Diego State (Nov. 5), vs. Fresno State (Nov. 11).
UNLV is likely to be an underdog in each of those contests. Making it through that gauntlet with even a single victory would be an accomplishment for a team that is still learning how to contend.
The transfer portal is working
Arroyo has taken heat for not recruiting local high school players, but his strategy of leaning on the transfer portal is clearly working.
The left side of the offensive line is made up of transfers from Charleston Southern in Daviyon McDaniel and Preston Nichols, Michigan State transfer Ricky White is the top wide receiver, and Louisville transfer Aidan Robbins is on pace for more than 1,000 yards and 15 touchdowns at running back.
It’s hard to imagine a group of scrawny freshmen and sophomores coming in and having the kind of impact that Arroyo has gotten from his transfers. Look for him to stick with that approach.
Quarterback is solved
Speaking of the transfer market, it’s a trip to remember that Doug Brumfield entered the portal back in spring practice. He didn’t receive any offers that he liked, and eight days later he was back in Scarlet and Gray.
That turned out to be the coup of all coups for the UNLV program, as Brumfield went on the win the starting quarterback job and has blossomed into a star over the first half of the season.
The sophomore has enjoyed good protection from the offensive line, and with a stable of explosive receivers running patterns, Brumfield has elevated his game, hitting 68.4% of his passes for 1,231 yards with eight touchdowns and just two interceptions. He has also run for five touchdowns.
With two years of eligibility remaining after this, Brumfield has clearly locked himself in as UNLV’s quarterback of the present and the future.
Ajiake is a playmaker
If Brumfield has been UNLV’s breakout star on offense, linebacker Austin Ajiake has been the man on the other side of the ball.
Ajiake played well last year as a junior, but he has taken his game to a new level in 2022. In addition to playing solid football and reliably carrying out his assignments, he’s also consistently making splashy, game-changing plays.
Through six contests Ajiake leads UNLV in tackles with 60 (the next-closest player has 31) and tackles for loss with 8.0. His 3.0 sacks are tied for most on the team, and his two interceptions are tied for second.
UNLV is not a one-man show on defense, but Ajiake is the frontman, and he’s turning in an All-Mountain West campaign.
Growing pains are still to be expected
When UNLV got off to a 2-0 start in conference play, it was only natural to get excited and start looking ahead to a potential West Division title run. The 40-7 loss at San Jose State served as a bucket of cold water, shocking the Scarlet and Gray back to reality and reminding them that being a contender is not so easy.
UNLV has not played in big games in recent years, so the no-show at San Jose kind of makes sense. But the team is going to face a string of important contests over the second half, and another performance like Friday’s would be cause for concern. It will be up to Arroyo to get his team ready to play now that there are actual stakes.
There are two must-win games remaining
Speaking of stakes, there are two games on the schedule that stand out as make-or-break.
Even if the worst-case scenario plays out and UNLV loses five straight during the tough part of the schedule, that would put them at 4-6 heading into the final two weeks — at which point they’d still have games against Hawaii and UNR to close out the year.
Hawaii is currently 1-5 overall (0-1 MWC) and averaging a scant 16.8 points per game, while UNR is marginally better at 2-4 (0-2 MWC). Both programs are at low points in their respective rebuilding processes, and given that UNLV’s window is now, the Scarlet and Gray should be able to bank on those two games being wins.
Even a 4-6 UNLV team on a five-game losing streak will go into each of the final two weeks as a heavy favorite. It wouldn’t be ideal to have to win both in order to qualify for a bowl game, but it’s important to note that by virtue of their strong start, the Scarlet and Gray have a clear path to the postseason.