What Went Right vs. UCLA

UCLA image 2

Photo via UNLVRebels.com

UNLV’s performance on Saturday at UCLA was one of the best all-around showings of the Tony Sanchez era—and the Rebels still ended up losing by three touchdowns. But there was plenty to take from the game besides the final score.

Let’s take a look at what went right and what went wrong in the 42-21 loss:

What went right

Offensive line
The Rebels’ blocking unit played superbly on Saturday, both in pass protection and in opening running lanes. Johnny Stanton attempted 28 passes—more than double the 12 he threw in his first career start last week—and the offensive line kept him clean, allowing just one sack.

In the running game, Lexington Thomas (19 carries, 112 yards, one touchdown) is able to turn even the most modest openings into chunks of positive yardage, but the line made him even more dangerous by giving him room to operate. The Rebels rushed 35 times for 175 yards, good for an even 5.0 yards per carry, and that’s a credit to the offensive line. They also performed well in short-yardage situations (see below).

UCLA’s defensive front is one of the most talented groups the Rebels will face all season, so the fact that the blocking held up is a really good sign going forward. The UNLV offensive line struggled mightily last year, but through two games of the 2016 season, this looks like one of the team’s most improved units.

Pass rush
UCLA sports one of the most effective pass protection schemes in the country, and given UNLV’s noted inability to rush the passer, this looked like Saturday’s single biggest mismatch. But the Rebels actually did a good job of pressuring UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, sacking him once, hitting him a handful of times and forcing him to throw quicker than he wanted on some key plays.

It’s too early to tell whether this was a sign of progress for the Rebels or a one-game mirage (just a week ago, UNLV barely brushed Jackson State QB LaMontiez Ivy). This will be one of the more intriguing storylines to follow next week when UNLV travels to take on Central Michigan.

Short yardage
The Rebels were extremely efficient in short-yardage situations, keeping multiple drives alive by converting on third and fourth downs. For the game, UNLV was 5-of-7 in converting on third or fourth down when they needed three yards or less, and the two times they failed were third downs that they subsequently picked up on the next play.

Senior running back David Greene was particularly beastly, as he went a perfect 4-for-4 on his short-yardage opportunities:

It looks like Greene has locked down his role as the team’s short-yardage hammer, a job that was expected to go to sophomore back Xzaviar Campbell. Greene is rolling right now and as long as he keeps moving the chains, expect Tony Sanchez to keep calling his number when he really needs a yard.

What went wrong

Targeting
The most talked-about play of the game came with 13 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, as the Rebels were mounting a comeback. They had cut the deficit from 28-7 to 28-21, and they had UCLA facing a third-and-10. A stop would have given the ball back to the UNLV offense with a chance to tie the game.

Then safety Kenny Keys did this:

UNLV fans took up arms on social media to decry the call, but objectively it looked like the obvious call as it happened live, and replays only solidified the correctness of the official’s ruling. Keys lowered his helmet on a defenseless receiver, and whether or not his shoulder also made contact, that’s going to earn a personal foul and an ejection just about every time.

This is something the coaching staff will have to address with Keys. His tackling form is a penalty waiting to happen, and it will keep costing the team until it’s fixed. For instance, just three plays before his ejection, he lowered his helmet in the same flag-baiting manner but just barely missed hitting the receiver in the head:

Keys got away with it the first time, but the second collision was too obvious and forced the refs to throw the flags. It extended UCLA’s drive, and four plays later the Bruins scored to make it a two-touchdown game. UNLV never got close again.

Officials aren’t going to stop calling targeting or helmet-to-helmet hits, so it’s up to the defenders to play within the rules. Keys plays a pivotal role in the UNLV secondary, so hopefully he’s a fast learner.

Run defense
Through two games, UNLV’s defensive front has been hard to figure out. Against a weaker opponent in Jackson State, the Rebels shut down the run (3.1 yards per carry) but couldn’t lay a hand on the QB (just one sack in nearly 50 pass attempts). Against UCLA, a stronger foe, the splits were reversed, as they generated decent pass rush pressure but got gashed on the ground.

For the game, UCLA ran 40 times for 215 yards (5.5 yards per carry). Missed tackles were a major culprit, as running back Soso Jamabo was able to cut back, reverse field and pick up extra yards on several carries. Walking off the field at halftime, Sanchez told a Pac-12 Network reporter that the Rebels’ tackling was “atrocious.”

It’s hard to know at this point which UNLV defense is the real thing, the one that walled off running lanes against Jackson State or the one that couldn’t tackle in space against UCLA. Look for Sanchez to make gang-tackling a point of emphasis before the next game.

QB decisions
Johnny Stanton did some good things on Saturday, especially with his legs, and generally played well enough to give UNLV a chance in the fourth quarter. But he also made some bad decisions, including a pair of no-chance interceptions that hurt the Rebels immensely.

This one was thrown into impenetrable double coverage on first-and-10, basically forfeiting an entire possession:

UNLV needs to play perfectly (or close to it) in order to beat superior teams. Two turnovers was too many on Saturday, and responsibility for both fell directly on Stanton.

Again, he played pretty effectively aside from the picks. He went 11-of-28 for 153 yards and a touchdown, and his percentage looked a bit better before he went 1-of-6 on the Rebels’ final two drives (after the Keys penalty that wiped away all momentum). But Stanton has to be more careful with the ball or none of the good stuff is going to matter.

Vegas Seven

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