Saturday’s 33-30 overtime loss to Idaho was bad. It was harmful to the program’s rebuilding process overall, a huge step back in terms of on-field performance in the Tony Sanchez era, a stumble in the eyes of the recruits watching, and all but a death sentence for the Rebels’ bowl game hopes.
So how did it happen? I’ll try to break it all down—the stuff that worked for UNLV and the stuff that didn’t. Let’s jump right in.
What went right
It’s obvious at this point that UNLV is a good running team. The ground game was productive once again on Saturday as the Rebels racked up 364 yards on 49 carries (7.4 yards per carry), and it was that ability to move the chains on the ground that kept UNLV in the game after quarterback Johnny Stanton put the team in an early hole with a pair of interceptions.
The offensive line did a tremendous job of opening up wide running lanes, with sophomore running back Lexington Thomas being the primary beneficiary. Thomas carried 19 times and produced 160 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 55-yard score to tie the game late in the fourth quarter.
Take a look at the blocking on the long touchdown, and then notice that Thomas wasn’t touched by a single defender on his journey to the end zone:
The offensive line created those kinds of openings all night. On this next play, right guard Justin Polu and center Will Kreitler open a gigantic hole for Thomas, who is then fast enough and quick enough to make the linebacker miss in space en route to another huge gain:
The Rebels also had a ton of success utilizing zone reads. Stanton was more effective as a runner than as a thrower, picking up 131 yards on 18 carries (7.3 per carry), and he consistently made the correct decision at the mesh point. Stanton freezes the unblocked defensive end on both of these plays before giving the ball to Thomas, who follows the excellent blocking of Kreitler, Polu and left guard Michael Chevalier:
This is all good news for UNLV. The Rebels have been consistently good at running the ball, and the interior of the line has been excellent all season. Polu in particular has been a revelation in the running game, and he’s just a freshman, so he should be a fine building block going forward.
Will all the other issues currently plaguing the Rebels, it’s nice to know the offensive line can usually be counted on to play well.
No. 2 receiver
The Rebels made a concerted effort to get Devonte Boyd more involved this week, throwing him a number of quick passes early in the game just to get the ball in his hands. For the game, Boyd finished with a six catches on eight targets for 64 yards—a decent line, but without any of the big game-changing plays that have become Boyd’s specialty.
While the need to get more production from Boyd is still an ongoing issue, I though the bigger story was freshman Darren Woods coming through with his best performance of the season. Thrust into the No. 2 receiver role in the wake of Kendal Keys’ season-ending injury, Woods has been inconsistent so far, dropping catchable balls and failing to pull any coverage away from Boyd.
He made progress on Saturday, however. Woods was targeted eight times and caught four balls for a team-high 66 yards, and he didn’t drop a single pass. He also made a couple big plays on end-arounds, rushing for 37 yards on his two carries.
The Rebels don’t need Megatron numbers out of Woods. They just need him to be reliable and move the chains when the defense leaves him open. He did that against Idaho:
There wasn’t anything spectacular about those catches, and that’s a good thing for Woods. When those catches become routine and he starts producing first downs—and even breaking a tackle and gaining chunks of yards after the catch, as he does in the first clip—on a regular basis, it will be a much needed boost for UNLV’s struggling passing game.
What went wrong
Idaho had allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 65 percent of their passes coming into the game for nearly 280 yards per contest, so this seemed like a perfect chance for Stanton to have himself a game and solidify himself as the answer to UNLV’s quarterback question. Instead, his play was shaky from the opening snap. He threw a near-interception on UNLV’s first drive, and on the second possession he threw a pass that was picked off for a touchdown. Two drives later, he threw another interception.
At that point, Stanton was 3-of-8 for 45 yards with the two crippling interceptions. The coaching staff was forced to take the air out of the ball and lean heavily on the running game, and Stanton attempted just six passes total in the second and third quarters before the game situation dictated more passing as the Rebels attempted their comeback in the fourth quarter.
The fact that Stanton was facing a poor pass defense, at home, with solid protection from the offensive line, with the benefit of a killer running game on his side, and still couldn’t get the job done has to be concerning. For the game, he finished 14-of-26 for 175 yards and one touchdown.
Stanton wasn’t a decisive winner in the Rebels’ preseason quarterback battle. It took him a long time to beat out incumbent Kurt Palandech, and even when he was named the starter, it seemed like a lukewarm “lesser of two evils”-type endorsement. If Stanton doesn’t pick up his game, Sanchez may start wondering if he has made the right decision on his starting QB.
Idaho has a pop gun offense, but the Vandals looked like a big-play factory on Saturday thanks to an extremely shoddy performance from the UNLV secondary.
Idaho quarterback Matt Linehan is a capable thrower, with seven 300-yard games to his credit over his career. But so far this season he hadn’t broken 190 yards—until he feasted his eyes on the UNLV defensive backfield, that is. Linehan wound up and threw deep ball after deep ball, especially in the second half, and it became clear that the Rebels have a lot of work to do to clean up their technique:
All of those bombs have a common trait, as UNLV’s defensive backs (Torry McTyer and Tim Hough in those clips) had pretty decent coverage down the field but failed to turn and locate the ball in the air. That allowed the Idaho receivers to make plays on the ball and come down with receptions while the DBs were looking around, confused as to what just happened.
Between the huge communication problems that led to wide-open deep completions in last week’s loss at Central Michigan and these technique flaws against Idaho, you can bet that future opponents are going to test the UNLV defense deep until the Rebels prove they can stop it.
Conservative when it counts
Sanchez has preached an aggressive mindset since taking over as head coach, making it a point to stress that these aren’t the same old Rebels who used to expect to lose every time they took the field. So it was a bit surprising to see him get conservative at the end of regulation, basically playing for overtime when UNLV had a chance to seal the win in the final seconds.
With the game tied, 27-27, UNLV took over possession at its own 9-yard-line with 2:12 remaining. Running out the clock in that circumstance would have been understandable, especially considering Stanton’s interception issues. But Sanchez decided to go for the win, and the Rebels passed the ball six times in advancing across midfield. At that point, it looked like Sanchez’s aggressive attitude was going to pay off—when Woods caught a four-yard pass to make it 3rd-and-6 at the Idaho 43-yard-line with 46 seconds remaining, UNLV’s win probability reached 61.4 percent, the highest it had been since the end of the first quarter.
But after an incomplete pass on third down, Sanchez sent out the punt team on 4th-and-6. Now, going for it on fourth down would have taken some chutzpah. And maybe Sanchez was shell shocked from watching Idaho complete all those deep balls in the second half. After all, if UNLV were to turn it over on downs in that situation, it would have only taken a 30-yard bomb the other way for Idaho to find itself in field goal range (and the Vandals had all three of their timeouts to work with). So punting was the safe call.
But overtime is basically a 50/50 proposition, whereas UNLV had a real chance to win the game right then and there at the end of regulation. One more completed pass would have put the Rebels on the fringe of field-goal range, and with two timeouts in his pocket, Sanchez could have then called a couple running plays (Thomas averaged 8.4 yards per carry on the day) to try and get even closer for kicker Evan Pantels.
It’s impossible to know how the game would have played out if UNLV had gone for the win. Maybe Stanton would have gotten picked off, or maybe the pass would have been incomplete and Idaho would have gotten its own chance to drive down for the winning FG. But in that specific situation, especially after the way the drive started—with Stanton slinging the ball from inside his own 10 instead of playing for OT—getting shy with the game on the line was a confusing call.