The UNLV defense will have its hands full on Saturday, as the Rebels will be tasked with slowing down an NFL-caliber quarterback for the second consecutive week.
Last Saturday, it was UCLA sophomore slinger Josh Rosen, a consensus future first-round pick who finished 23-of-38 for 267 yards and a touchdown. This week, it’s 6-foot-3 Central Michigan signal caller Cooper Rush, a polished passer who has completed 68.1 percent of his throws this season for 598 yards and five touchdowns.
The Central Michigan passing attack will be difficult to stop, as the Chippewas have big, physical receivers and an aggressive scheme that pushes the ball down the field. And Rush is in complete control—the fifth-year senior is now in his fourth year as the starting QB. College passers don’t come much more experienced than that. If the Rebels are going to have any success on defense, it will have to be a complementary effort between the secondary and the pass rush. While UNLV didn’t have a ton of success against Rosen and the UCLA offense, their most effective stretches came when the Rebels were able to generate pressure without compromising their coverage.
Does UNLV have the personnel up front to create havoc in the backfield without blitzing against Central Michigan? It’s still too early in the season to know for sure, but there were positive signs in last week’s UCLA game.
In the first half of that contest, Tony Sanchez and defensive coordinator Kent Baer devised a game plan that centered around blitzing Rosen. On 22 first-half pass plays, UNLV blitzed (rushing five or more defenders) 10 times, sending extra rushers 45.5 percent of the time. The strategy backfired—despite the heavy blitzing, UNLV only pressured Rosen three times. And with fewer defenders dropping back, the savvy field general was able to pick apart the secondary, completing 8-of-10 first-half passes against the blitz for 75 yards.
Give Sanchez and Baer some credit, because they went in at halftime, realized their plan wasn’t working, and made adjustments. They scaled back the blitzing in the second half, devoted more defensive backs to coverage downfield and put the onus on the defensive line to create pressure with a four-man rush. Surprisingly, the move worked—the Rebels rushed four men on 15 of 20 second-half pass plays, and they generated pressure on five of those 15 snaps, including a sack and two other quarterback hits.
On those 15 second-half snaps against the Rebels’ four-man rush, Rosen completed just 5-of-12 passes for 68 yards (the other two plays resulted in defensive penalties).
If the Rebels’ pass rush can repeat that performance against Central Michigan and sustain it for four quarters, UNLV is capable of hanging with the Chippewas. It should be interesting to see how aggressive Sanchez is with his blitz calls against Rush, especially in the early going.
Take a look at the overall pass rush numbers against UCLA:
UNLV pass rush vs. UCLA
*All in second half.
Defensive tackle Mike Hughes was the most impressive pass rusher against UCLA, as he finished with three QB pressures—two of which came on four-man rushes, including one that led directly to a sack for teammate LaKeith Walls.
“I feel like it was a tale of two halves,” said the 6-foot-2, 315-pounder. “I feel like in the first half, no we didn’t [get any pressure], but in the second half we kind of turned it up. And [against Central Michigan] that will be the biggest challenge, turning it on when the game starts—right now. In the second half [against UCLA] you could tell we were getting to Rosen a lot better. We got a sack in the third quarter and we brought a little more pressure to him.”
Hughes will have to lead the charge again on Saturday. If UNLV can’t get to the quarterback, Rush will take advantage of the extra time, and for the second straight week, the Rebels are facing a quarterback too good to leave unattended in the pocket.