Saturday was a very good day for UNLV football, as the Rebels finally closed the deal in a close game, finally won a road game, and climbed above .500 in Mountain West play all in the same week.
So how did the Rebels do it? Let’s take a look at what worked (and what didn’t) in UNLV’s 41-38 win.
What went right
Throwing on the move
Dalton Sneed couldn’t generate any production in the passing game against San Diego State, but he looked like a completely different player on Saturday against Hawaii. The redshirt freshman didn’t just put up better numbers—he went 19-of-27 for 279 yards and two touchdowns—his playing style, fiery attitude and aggressiveness harkened back to his first career start against Fresno State three weeks ago.
Instead of being cautious and timid, as he appeared to be against SDSU (with some of that owing to a conservative game plan), Sneed came out against Hawaii looking to take chances and make big plays. A big part of that was his approach to broken plays, as his ability to throw on the run allowed him to pick up big chunks of yardage consistently.
On this 39-yard strike to fullback Tim Holt, Sneed avoided the pass rush, stepped up and fired a laser down the sideline to set up an easy 1-yard touchdown run for David Greene:
Dalton Sneed throwing on the run and hitting Tim Holt for 39 yards down to the goal line pic.twitter.com/Cl43Ul9t1R
— Mike Grimala (@MikeGrimala) October 16, 2016
Sneed showed good athleticism on that play, and that’s something the Rebels can use going forward, as the coaches (and the offensive line and the receivers) get more familiar with Sneed’s strengths and weaknesses. After three games (and two wins), it appears that his mobility can be a valuable asset for UNLV.
Freshman Justin Polu continues to have a tremendous season at right guard, with his turn on Saturday being the latest in a series of standout performances. The 6-foot-4, 315-pounder consistently opened big holes in the running game, both dominating at the point of attack and showing nimbleness in getting to the second level.
On Lexington Thomas’ 34-yard touchdown run, Polu made two key blocks to clear the way. First, he chipped the Hawaii defensive tackle, turning him sideways and slowing him down enough for UNLV center Will Kreitler to pull around and seal him off to the inside. Then, Polu quickly fired to the second level and blocked the middle linebacker, which turned what would have been a solid gain into an opportunity for a long touchdown as Thomas is able to streak into the secondary untouched:
Lexington Thomas spins his way into the end zone 🔄 pic.twitter.com/E0DfObsmJq
— Mike Grimala (@MikeGrimala) October 16, 2016
Polu had several other impressive run blocking plays against Hawaii, and he’s been doing stuff like this all season. UNLV fans should be excited to have such an excellent long-term building block on the offensive line.
Receivers step up
Devonte Boyd returned to the land of the living with a team-high six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown. It’s been an up-and-down season for Boyd, some of it his own doing—he even dropped the first pass thrown his way on Saturday—but the junior wideout remained focused and turned in his best game since Week 1.
In addition to the volume production, Boyd also left his mark by making one of the biggest plays of the game. With the score tied, 38-38, with just more than two minutes to play, Boyd made a great catch on a tipped ball to advance the Rebels inside the Hawaii red zone:
High degree of difficulty on Devonte Boyd’s 31-yd catch to set up the game-winning FG. Ball tipped late, quick hands by Boyd pic.twitter.com/LabQzVqwrx
— Mike Grimala (@MikeGrimala) October 17, 2016
A few plays later, Evan Pantels kicked the game-winning field goal. Boyd’s catch was the biggest play on the final drive, and if he’s back to being a big-play threat on a weekly basis, it will greatly help Sneed going forward.
Sneed also got some support from an unlikely source, as freshman Jericho Flowers chipped in with three catches in his first game at receiver. The 5-foot-10 Los Angeles native was recruited as a defensive back and played that position through the first six weeks of the season, but the massive injury wave that hit the UNLV receiver corps forced the coaching staff to convert Flowers to the offensive side of the ball.
Flowers delivered in a big way, catching all three of his targets for 25 yards. That may seem like modest production, but two of the catches moved the chains, including a huge 3rd-and-7 conversion that kept UNLV’s game-tying drive alive late in the fourth quarter. We have no way of knowing whether Flowers will continue to be a factor (or whether he’ll even catch another pass again in his college career), but on Saturday he made a difference.
What went wrong
Once again, UNLV’s defensive backs had no success stopping deep ball. Had they been able to knock down just one or two jump balls, the victory would have been more comfortable, but the Rebels showed the same inability to execute on those plays that we’ve seen all season.
Hawaii receiver Marcus Kemp caught three downfield bombs totaling 106 yards, and he also drew a pair of pass interference calls on similar plays. UNLV cornerback Darius Mouton was the most frequent victim, but it could have easily been Tim Hough or Torry McTyer or Kenny Keys or Troy Hawthorne, all of whom have had the same problems this season.
If the Rebels don’t shore it up, this weakness is eventually going to cost them a game.
A week after looking fairly stout against San Diego State’s powerful rushing attack, the Rebels’ front seven faltered at Hawaii, allowing 6.9 yards per rush. Warriors running backs had tremendous success, producing 200 yards on 24 carries (8.3 yards per carry). It may not be a huge issue this week against Colorado State’s modest run game, but it’s still an area where the Rebels need to do some fine-tuning.