It certainly felt like a #NewEra for UNLV football on Saturday night, as the Rebels played surprisingly well and nearly sprung an upset on Northern Illinois before coming up short, 38-30. As moral victories go, this one was pretty strong. UNLV was alive until the final minutes, and there were enough good signs to keep the fan base enthused heading into next week’s home opener against UCLA.
What can we learn from the first game of the 2015 season? A few quick thoughts:
The spotlight was on Tony Sanchez, and the first-year coach gave the impression that he was in command from the start. He had UNLV prepared on both sides of the ball, and his game plan helped the Rebels jump out to a 17-3 lead. He did the little things well—he conserved timeouts, he went for it on fourth down when it was prudent, and he controlled the sideline:
Tony Sanchez with some tough love for TE Andrew Price, who couldn’t come up with the TD catch on 3rd down pic.twitter.com/QpTVmb6htY
— Mike Grimala (@MikeGrimala) September 6, 2015
The Rebels didn’t make any terrible, game-changing mistakes, which is half the battle. The defense got beaten over the top too often, and Northern Illinois broke some long runs in the second half, but that was due to the UNLV defense wearing down physically more than any mental errors.
All in all, Sanchez’s debut was impressive. It looks like UNLV football is in good hands.
Time cures all
The biggest thing the Rebels are going to need during this rebuilding process is time. Nine true freshman saw the field against Northern Illinois, and it showed as the game went on. NIU’s players were older and more physically mature, and the Huskies were able to impose their will in the second half, especially along their defensive line. The Rebels’ front was overpowered on nearly every play, giving quarterback Blake Decker little time to scan the field before bracing for contact.
It will be up to the coaching staff to make sure the offensive line continues improving on a weekly basis, until the youngsters are capable of providing adequate protection for a full 60 minutes. Until then, expect Decker to continue scrambling for his life.
Much like their offensive counterpart, the Rebels’ defense faded in the second half, mostly due to being physically overmatched. After holding Northern Illinois to 60 yards rushing on 22 attempts in the first half (2.7 yards per carry), the D wilted after halftime, as the Huskies rolled to 138 yards on 17 second-half carries (8.1 yards per carry).
Sanchez tried his best to protect his defense, employing a ball-control strategy on offense that led to UNLV racking up a 33:37-23:06 advantage in time of possession, but it still wasn’t enough, as Northern Illinois exposed a weak spot that the Rebels will have a hard time fixing this season.
Not surprisingly, it was a pair of seniors, defensive backs Peni Vea and Blake Richmond, who stood out on Saturday. But veterans are at a premium on the Rebels’ defense. The young guys will have to take their lumps early in the season and learn on the fly.
Tony Sanchez would certainly take issue with the characterization of this game as a “moral victory,” but I think the players can rally around each other and take pride in the way they performed on Saturday. They executed well in the first half, and when the game turned against them in the second half, they pulled together to make one final push before coming up short on the last drive.
Considering the recent history of UNLV football, any reason to be excited about the product on the field is a major improvement.
Follow Mike Grimala (@MikeGrimala) on Twitter for 24/7 Rebels updates.