San Diego St UNLV Football

San Diego State safety Trenton Thompson attempts to tackle UNLV running back Charles Williams last week in Las Vegas.

Four points per game is all that has separated UNLV from its Mountain West competitors.

Air Force, with so much riding on Friday’s game, must try to prevent the Rebels from closing that gap in their season finale and delay a breakthrough that feels more and more like an inevitability.

“They have tremendous players,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said.

And when asked if this feels like a program on the verge, Calhoun concurred.

“They’re in an area that’s growing rapidly,” he said. “They have a home venue that might be the best there is in college football in a lot of ways. The investment they’ve made in their football operations building. Most certainly.”

The Rebels (2-9, 2-5 Mountain West) now play their home games at the Las Vegas Raiders’ $1.9 billion Allegiant Stadium. On campus, there is a new privately funded $34.8 million football facility complete with 10,000-square foot weight room, a locker room with individual ventilation for each of the 112 lockers, a sports medicine room that includes underwater treadmills, meeting rooms, a dining area, a barber shop and players’ lounge with big-screen televisions, video games and pool tables.

“The first time I walked around, I could see it was real,” coach Marcus Arroyo described to The Gazette in July. “These are real logos. This is your locker room.

“What we’ve hoped to see structurally — the city, the team … you can recruit here. Yes, you can. It has helped us believe.”

And now Arroyo — with a background that includes time as a player and longtime assistant at San Jose State, a two-year stint as offensive coordinator at Wyoming and time at California, the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Oklahoma State and as offensive coordinator at Oregon — has the Rebels on the verge with their play.

The team has endured six losses by one score, including a 24-17 loss to No. 15 UTSA and four in conference play. The Rebels lost by four points to Utah State (the same margin the Aggies defeated Air Force), by eight at Fresno State, by seven to San Jose State and last week they trailed No. 22 San Diego State 21-20 with fewer than four minutes to play before the Aztecs stretched it to the final score of 28-20.

Nevada is the only conference team to beat UNLV by more than 8 points, doing so behind 417 passing yards and four touchdowns from potential first-round NFL Draft pick Carson Strong in a 51-20 game.

Contrast that with the Rebels’ last full season, 2019, when their Mountain West losses included setbacks by 36, 29, 25, 20 and 14 points.

“We’ve got a good stadium, a good building; but if you’re not winning, that’s what it’s all about,” linebacker Jacoby Windmon told The Gazette in July, before embarking on a season that has seen him make 102 tackles, including 11 stops for loss. “But we are very blessed by what we’ve got. It’s opened our eyes.”

Running back Charles Williams has rushed for 1,124 yards this year for UNLV, second in the Mountain West to Air Force’s Brad Roberts (1,177).

Quarterback Justin Rogers, a transfer from TCU who was once a four-star recruit with offers from Georgia, LSU and Texas, saw his first extensive action of the season for UNLV in the loss to San Diego State and completed 15-of-21 passes for 305 yards and two touchdowns.

The Rebels have the No. 5 rushing defense in the Mountain West, a field goal crew that has connected on 16-of-18 attempts this year and they are 2-1 in the past three weeks.

The ingredients are coming together, but the Falcons didn’t need the extra motivation considering what this game could mean.

If Air Force (8-3, 5-2) wins on Friday, it would need a Boise State victory over San Diego State or a Utah State loss to New Mexico to capture the Mountain Division title and play in the conference championship game on Dec. 4, potentially as the host. The Falcons could also advance with a loss, but it would need losses from both the Aggies and Broncos.

“It always means a little bit more,” Air Force senior guard Hawk Wimmer said. “It gives you a little more chip on your shoulder when you have something to fight for.”

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