In this weekly feature, I’m going to relay some of my thoughts after re-watching UNLV’s football games in closer detail. Today we’re looking at the Rebels’ 33-27 overtime loss to San Jose State.
What went right
For the second week in a row, UNLV’s overwhelming focus on the defensive side of the ball was slowing down the run game, and for the second week in a row the Rebels were successful. San Jose State running back Tyler Ervin came into the game as the nation’s No. 2 leading rusher, but the UNLV defense held him to a very reasonable 73 yards on 18 carries (4.1 yards per carry).
The coaching staff devised a game plan that used varied fronts and alignments, switching between a 3-man line and a 4-man line, with a focus on containing the edges. The Rebels’ defensive line appeared to be tasked with funneling Ervin into the middle of the field, where UNLV had extra linebackers waiting to fill run lanes, and it worked for most of the game.
Linebackers Ryan McAleenan and Tau Lotulelei were charged with corralling Ervin, and they held up strong. McAleenan finished with a team-high 12 tackles (10 solo), while Lotulelei recorded eight stops. San Jose State running backs finished the contest with 20 carries for just 82 yards. It was another impressive piece of game-planning and execution from the UNLV defense.
What went wrong
While the Rebels held up quite well defending the run, the game was lost due to continual breakdowns in pass coverage. While the Rebels’ safety tandem of Blake Richmond and Peni Vea have been consistently good this season, they struggled to contain SJSU receivers on Saturday night, allowing several big plays that led directly to points.
Richmond looked slow to react in coverage and took bad angles on more than one occasion. On this play, he’s playing as a single high safety, tasked with defending the deep pass as the last line of defense. But when San Jose State completes a slant in front of him, he takes a shallow angle and allows the receiver to blow by him. Luckily, the Rebels were able to catch him from behind, otherwise this could have gone for a long touchdown:
On this play, Vea is lined up in man coverage while Richmond is playing in support over the top. The receiver runs past Vea on a deep route, and the play-action fake appears to slow Richmond’s reaction, allowing the receiver to break free for a potential touchdown catch. Again, the Rebels lucked out, as the receiver dropped a perfectly placed pass. But the fact is both Richmond and Vea were trailing in coverage:
Richmond and Vea are good players, and they did make some good plays in this game—Richmond had a pass breakup and Vea had a breakup and an interception. But on the whole, they struggled as a safety duo for the first time this season.
It feels like piling on to single out Kurt Palandech here—he’s a backup, after all, so it’s kind of unfair to expect him to sling the Rebels to victory. But he is a capable player, and he didn’t perform as well as he could have against San Jose State. The raw box score numbers weren’t good—15-of-30, 217 yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions—but the real shame was that Palandech received better protection than starter Blake Decker has had in any game this season.
Take a look at the perfect pocket Palandech has to work with on this play. But instead of using it to scan the field and find an open receiver, he throws a bad pass into tight coverage and ends up turning the ball over in the red zone:
That play took points off the board for UNLV, and obviously the Rebels could have used them later in the game. Palandech did some good things, mostly on the ground with his legs, but he wasn’t able to take advantage of the copious time he had in the pocket.
What it means for next week
Decker’s status is going to be the main story line again as the Rebels prepare for Fresno State. The Bulldogs are down this season (and that is a massive understatement), so this is a good opportunity for UNLV to grab a road win and bank another conference victory. A healthy Decker operating behind the current offensive line should be able to put 30-plus points on the board against Fresno State pretty easily.
Jason Fao, defensive tackle
UNLV has had trouble generating pressure with its pass rush this season, mostly because the defensive line lacks the type of explosive athletes who can consistently beat their blockers one-on-one. That’s why the coaches felt they had to blitz the house on San Jose State’s final drive in regulation, bringing seven rushers on four straight plays, opening the door for quarterback Kenny Potter to hit Ervin with a screen pass for a walk-in touchdown.
But on second viewing, one player stood out along the defensive line. Sophomore defensive lineman Jason Fao did a good job of creating a push into the backfield, recording a pair of pressures and a tackle for loss.
On this play, Fao is lined up as a defensive tackle in a four-man front. He bench presses his blocker, drives him backward (watch the defender skid backward when Fao releases him) and comes off to make a solo tackle in the backfield:
That’s an impressive individual effort from the 6-foot, 300-pounder. Fao did that a couple times in the running game. He also got into the backfield on passing plays, including this third-quarter play in which he uses speed more than power to create havoc. The guard assigned to block him takes a poor angle, and Fao blows by him and takes a direct line to the quarterback. Potter gets the ball out quickly to avoid the sack, but Fao still gets credit for forcing the issue:
Fao played a limited number of snaps, but from what I saw, there is some potential there. He’s a player to monitor in the coming weeks.
Does Tony Sanchez want Blake Decker back under center? I think so…