LAS VEGAS -- San Jose State's chances of returning to the postseason took a major step forward Saturday with 34-24 win over UNLV.
The Spartans (5-3, 4-1 Mountain West Conference) won their fourth straight game and moved one victory away from being bowl eligible.
But there are bigger goals in sight for SJSU, which hasn't reached back-to-back bowl games since the 1986-87 seasons. The Spartans control their own destiny in the conference's West Division and have their sights set on reaching the Mountain West championship game.
"They know what this game means," SJSU coach Ron Caragher said of his players. "The winner of this game stays in the hunt for the Mountain West championship. It's still one game at a time, and we still have some areas to improve on and that's always our focus. But we're still in the hunt, still right there."
If the Spartans can beat San Diego State at home next week and Nevada on the road in two weeks, they can guarantee that the Nov. 29 regular-season finale against Fresno State would give them a shot at the title game.
The script of this victory -- before 15,837 at Sam Boyd Stadium -- was much different from the previous four. For the first time all season, the running game vastly outperformed the passing game.
Quarterback David Fales threw for a career-low 150 yards and had only one touchdown and two interceptions.
But freshmen Jarrod Lawson and Thomas Tucker powered a running attack that rushed for 312 yards, the team's largest output since 2006.
Lawson had a career-high 187 yards on 28 carries and Tucker rushed for a career-high 94 yards on eight carries, including a 37-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. That was Tucker's first career touchdown.
"As long as we're getting the win, it doesn't matter," Fales said of his off day, in which he completed 15 of 30 passes.
The Spartans used an uncharacteristic fast start to propel them. They played their best first half of the season to take a 24-3 lead. The defense was energized by having defensive coordinator Kenwick Thompson on the sideline for the first time this year. Thompson normally coaches from the press box.
"Having Coach Thompson on the sideline was a huge key to our success," linebacker Christian Tago said. "He was on us every play."
SJSU scored an opening-possession touchdown for the first time this season, with Fales capping a 13-play drive with a 13-yard touchdown pass to Chandler Jones.
"The whole theme was start fast and score on the opening drive," Fales said. "We wanted to finish faster. We've still got to work on that, but definitely that was one of our goals to score on the first drive."
The Spartans' Bené Benwikere intercepted UNLV's Caleb Herring on the Rebels' first drive, and that set up another SJSU score. Tight end Billy Freeman took an end-around and threw a 30-yard touchdown pass to Kyle Nunn.
Lawson had a 31-yard touchdown run, and Austin Lopez kicked a 20-yard field goal for the big halftime lead.
The Rebels (5-4, 3-2) made it a game in the third quarter, though. Herring threw a 19-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Sullivan on the opening drive, and UNLV turned Fales' second interception into a touchdown.
Tucker regained the momentum for the Spartans in the fourth quarter, going 37 yards for a score on third and 5 to make it 31-17.
When UNLV missed a field-goal attempt with 48 seconds to go that would've made it a seven-point game, SJSU ran out the clock for the win.
The fourth straight Mountain West win felt like a statement to the Spartans, who are in their first year in the conference after moving over from the Western Athletic Conference.
"I think this is a huge statement for us," Tago said. "I know there was a lot of talk about us coming in that we were just another WAC team trying to join the Mountain West. But I think this game was just a big step, showing them that we can come into this league and play with any of their top teams."
San Diego State (4-4, 3-1 Mountain West) at San Jose State (5-3, 4-1), 7:30 p.m. CBSSN