If the UNLV football team has slightly outperformed expectations on defense so far in 2015—the Rebels rank a somewhat respectable 74th in the nation in points per game allowed at 27.4—it’s mostly been due to the play of the secondary.
The advanced statistics at Football Study Hall rate UNLV’s defense as a middling unit in every area except defensive backs’ havoc rate (a stat that measures how often a particular position group creates “havoc” plays, ie sacks, forced fumbles, interceptions, tackles for loss, etc.). The Rebels’ secondary ranks 19th in the nation in that category.
The defensive front, on the other hand, has done almost nothing to generate big plays. The defensive line ranks 125th in havoc rate, and the linebackers rank 88th. For the season, UNLV linemen have recorded just 2.5 sacks, and linebackers have chipped in just 2.0. The lack of pass rush has been a noticeable detriment, especially in back-to-back losses to San Jose State and Fresno State; in those two games, opposing quarterbacks dropped back to throw 79 passes and racked up 522 yards while being sacked just one time.
The problem is that the Rebels don’t seem to have many natural pass rushers on the roster. On pass plays where UNLV has sent the standard three or four rushers after the passer (coach Tony Sanchez usually has his charges lined up with three down linemen and one “edge rusher” forming a four-man front), the Rebels have generated pressure on just 15.6 percent of snaps.
The pressure picks up a bit when the Rebels blitz, but not enough. When UNLV has sent five or more rushers on pass plays, the scheme has generated pressure 36.2 percent of the time. But leaning on the blitz to generate pressure obviously comes with inherent risk, as the Rebels found out when San Jose State hit a fourth-down screen pass for a game-tying touchdown against a seven-man blitz.
As I noted in my most recent Game Rewind piece, the lack of pass rush appears to be a talent issue. There are a couple defensive linemen who have flashed decent pass rush skills in sophomores Mike Hughes and Jason Fao, but they are situational players at this point in their careers. The onus is squarely on Sanchez to recruit talent to fill out the defensive front, but that is going to take some time.
In the meantime, the Rebels will have to figure out a way to manufacture pressure on the passer if they want to tack another win or two on the board this season. Whether they do it by gambling more often with the blitz or playing their less-experienced pass rushers more, introducing a little more havoc into pass plays has to be UNLV’s top priority.