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’ 31-28 loss at Fresno State.
What went right
UNLV appeared to come into the game with the goal of minimizing the amount of heavy lifting quarterback Kurt Palandech would have to do, and that effort was largely successful. The Rebels relied on their rushing attack and were able to move the ball consistently, with the running back stable of Keith Whitely, Xzaviar Campbell, Lexington Thomas and George Naufahu all taking turns carrying the ball.
For the game, the Rebels handed off 34 times for 137 yards, an average of 4.0 yards per carry. Those may not seem like overwhelming numbers, especially considering that Fresno State’s defense has been decrepit against the run this season, but it was good enough to allow UNLV to build a 32:08-27:52 advantage in time of possession.
As has been the case over the past three weeks, the interior of the offensive line did a good job of turning defenders and opening running lanes, and the backs—particularly Whitely—decisively plowed through the creases for positive chunks. UNLV probably could have justified giving an even bigger workload to the running backs and forcing the Fresno State defense to hold up against the run for the full 60 minutes.
What went wrong
Defending the zone read
As good as UNLV’s rushing attack was—and let’s not get carried away, it was merely good, not great or anything—Fresno State’s was much better. The Bulldogs rolled up 217 yards on the ground at 5.7 yards per carry, and much of the damage was done via the zone read option.
On Fresno State’s opening drive, a 12-play, 83-yard march, the Bulldogs ran five pure read option plays. Those snaps went for 59 yards, including a whopping 40-yard scamper by quarterback Kilton Anderson:
On that play, UNLV’s right defensive end and blitzing linebacker Tau Lotulelei come crashing down the line at a steep angle, expecting the running back to get the handoff. Instead, Anderson pulls the ball and darts around the edge for a huge gain on third down.
On an earlier zone read play, Anderson once again read the defense, and once the end committed to pursuing the running back, Anderson kept the ball and found an easy nine-yard gain:
There are different ways to defend the zone read—bringing a free safety up to the line to account for the weak side is one strategy the Rebels might want to consider, since they have a pair of quality tacklers at that position—and I expect coach Tony Sanchez to spend a significant amount of time during the bye week working on a solution.
For the second straight week, UNLV’s defensive line spent much of the game spinning its wheels when it came time to rush the passer. And just like last week, the Rebels tried to compensate by blitzing at a critical juncture, only to be burned for the game-winning touchdown.
Anderson was unhurried for much of the game, as he dropped back more than 30 times while only being sacked once. This especially hurt the Rebels on Fresno State’s final drive. The Bulldogs started at their own 44 needing a touchdown to take the lead and dropped Anderson back on four of the first five plays. UNLV rushed four linemen on each snap and failed to come close to pressuring the passer. So on 3rd-and-6 at the UNLV 36, the Rebels got a little bit desperate and rushed six defenders in an effort to force the issue.
In addition to the three down linemen, three blitzers rush at the snap: the slot cornerback, the weakside linebacker and the strongside linebacker. None of them get home. The slot cornerback is on the back side of the play and never has a chance to catch up. The strongside linebacker recognizes that the right guard and right tackle are pulling, so he correctly diagnoses a run play and cuts off his pass rush, re-routing himself along the line of scrimmage to chase the handoff. Unfortunately, his angle is too shallow, and he gets taken out of the play by the pulling tackle (who makes a great play, blocking both the strongside linebacker and the middle linebacker at the same time). The weakside linebacker coming from the other edge is totally wiped out by the pulling right guard:
With all three blitzers accounted for (and then some), all it takes is one competent downfield block by the Fresno State wide receiver to clear the path for the touchdown. Last week, UNLV blitzed seven defenders in a similar situation and got beaten by a perfectly-executed screen pass. This time, it was a perfectly-executed sweep that doomed the Rebels.
If UNLV had been able to generate a more natural pass rush from the defensive line against Fresno State (or San Jose State), the coaching staff may not have felt it was necessary to blitz multiple defenders in such big situations. The risky defensive calls backfired in both instances, and the Rebels dropped a pair of heartbreakers.
What it means for next week
The Rebels are on a bye this week, so they’ll have 14 days to prepare for their next contest against Boise State on Oct. 31. Here’s a quick punch list of things the coaching staff should be focusing on with that extra prep time:
- Shore up the pass protection, particularly the right side of the offensive line
- Figure out a way to incorporate Devonte Boyd into the offense more consistently; he needs at least 10 targets per game
- Find a way to generate pass rush; I suggest playing sophomore defensive linemen Jason Fao and Mike Hughes together more often
- Contain the zone read
- Free up safety Blake Richmond to make more plays; he’s good in pass coverage, but at his best when he’s roaming and free to attack the ball downhill
Keith Whitely, running back
The Rebels might have had more success on the ground against Fresno State if they had given Whitely a few more opportunities. He was the team’s most effective runner, knifing through holes to the tune of 98 yards on 17 carries (5.8 per), and he didn’t have any negative plays.
On the four drives that featured Whitely as the lead back, UNLV averaged 5.2 yards per play and scored three touchdowns. On the other six possessions that featured rotating backs, the Rebels averaged 1.8 yards per play, scored one touchdown and had five three-and-outs. The lone non-Whitely touchdown drive came after being set up with a short field when Fresno State muffed a punt and UNLV recovered at the FSU 30 yard line. On the ensuing possession, Lexington Thomas carried for one yard, Campbell got stuffed for no gain, and then Palandech hit Devonte Boyd for a 29-yard TD. Aside from that one long strike, the Rebels could not move the ball without Whitely on the field:
|Lead back vs. Fresno State||Plays||Yards||Yards per play||Result|
That chart doesn’t include the final desperation drive, but it still illustrates how much more effective the offense was with Whitely lined up in the backfield. Sanchez wants to keep his young running backs involved in the offense, and planning for the future is smart. But in a close game, with a chance to steal a road win, I don’t think anyone would have complained if the Rebels had leaned on Whitely just a bit more down the stretch.
The Rebels’ chances of winning the West division pretty much evaporated with Friday’s loss. Now 2-5 overall, and with Boise State looming after the bye, the bowl picture isn’t pretty either. Not that it’s fair to hold that against the Rebels—no one would have considered bowl eligibility a realistic scenario before the season—but losing back-to-back winnable games has seriously slowed momentum. If UNLV loses to Boise State, the Rebels will go more than a calendar month without recording a win.