College football forecast: Penny for your thoughts

By Matt Youmans  (VSiN senior editor) 

October 7, 2017 04:32 AM
Rashaad Penny, one of college football's most valuable running backs, leads San Diego State against UNLV on Saturday night. The Aztecs arrive in Las Vegas as 9-point favorites.
© USA Today Sports Images

Who misses the winless Chargers? Rashaad Penny leads a still-perfect San Diego State team that is helping some fans forget the NFL losers who left town this year.

Who is Penny? He might be college football’s best running back west of Penn State’s Saquon Barkley.

It’s rare when a Mountain West matchup finds the national spotlight, but that will happen Saturday night, when the Aztecs face UNLV at Sam Boyd Stadium. Penny deserves the spotlight that comes with the ESPN2 telecast. But there is another, unwanted reason this game is attracting attention. Emotional tributes are planned for the victims of this week’s shooting massacre in Las Vegas.

Expect the Rebels to play at their highest emotional level. Whether that will be enough to inspire an upset remains to be seen, but there certainly will be a different kind of atmosphere surrounding this football game.

San Diego State, 5-0 and ranked No. 19, is the best the Mountain West has to offer. It’s a team in line to land in a major bowl with an undefeated run, and the Aztecs appear too talented to lose in Las Vegas. The best player on the field is on their side.

Penny will not win the Heisman Trophy — if a running back is handed the award this year, Barkley will carry it — and he’s not the second coming of Marshall Faulk, but he merits a mention in the same sentence. Penny has piled up 823 yards on 116 carries (7.1 yards per carry) to go with seven rushing touchdowns.

In San Diego State’s 30-20 win at Arizona State on Sept. 9, Penny scored on a 95-yard run, 99-yard kickoff return and 33-yard reception. A weak UNLV run defense will get stretched to the limit by a back who has punished two Pac-12 defenses, with Stanford being the other.

Penny’s running prowess and coach Rocky Long’s creative 3-3-5 defensive schemes make the Aztecs legit. Since the beginning of October 2015, San Diego State’s 26-3 record trails only Alabama (30-1) and Clemson (30-2).

The Rebels are mostly known for being on the wrong end of the largest point-spread upset in college football history on Sept. 2, when 45-point underdog Howard pulled off a 43-40 stunner. UNLV is 3-0 against the spread since by winning big at Idaho, covering at Ohio State and blowing out hapless San Jose State. An upset of San Diego State would help make amends for the Howard fiasco.

The Rebels are capable, partly because they will ride an emotional wave and also due to a potent ground attack led by running back Lexington Thomas (571 yards, 8.4 per carry, nine touchdowns) and quarterback Armani Rogers, an electric young athlete who’s not yet reminding anyone of Aaron Rodgers when he throws it.

This is also a good time to catch the Aztecs, who are off of a rigorous four-game stretch against Arizona State, Stanford, Air Force and Northern Illinois. San Diego State was shaky and vulnerable last week while barely escaping against the Huskies.

And with Boise State on deck Oct. 14, maybe this is a lookahead spot for the Aztecs. Still, all things considered, this will be no ordinary game, and Long’s comments this week indicate he has his players focused.

Which teams have the most on the line Saturday? Among the teams in competitively-lined games, Washington State, San Diego State and Louisiana State figure prominently in the answer. Penny is among the players with the most to gain.

A late kickoff (7:45 p.m.) in Las Vegas will make this game popular on the betting board. Look for a big first half from the Rebels, but if emotion gives way to talent in the second half, the Aztecs should cover as 9-point favorites.

Saturday’s plays: NORTHWESTERN (plus-14) over Penn State; PURDUE (-3½) over Minnesota; MICHIGAN (-10) over Michigan State; IDAHO (-6) over Louisiana-Lafayette; UTAH STATE (plus-8½) over Colorado State; San Diego State (-9) over UNLV; Washington State (-2½) over OREGON; West Virginia (plus-13½) over TEXAS CHRISTIAN; Kansas State (plus-6) over TEXAS; Miami (-3) over FLORIDA STATE.

Last week: 2-3 against the spread

Season: 18-20

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