A win would have made things too easy for UNLV football. By beating a mediocre Colorado State squad at home on Saturday, the Rebels would have moved to 4-4 on the season, just two wins away from bowl eligibility and the shot in the arm that a postseason berth would have administered to the program.
Instead, the Rebels played their most dispirited game of the season, falling behind 35-0 in the first half and staggering to an eventual 42-23 defeat.
It was ugly in many ways. The defense was unable to get off the field in the first half, surrendering 298 yards of total offense in the first 30 miserable minutes. And the Rebels’ offense was unable to execute at all, as freshman quarterback Dalton Sneed went into halftime just 1-of-8 for 14 yards.
Now, UNLV has put itself in the position of having to play its best football of the season over the remaining four weeks if the campaign is to continue beyond the Nov. 26 finale against Nevada-Reno.
A few quick thoughts on Saturday’s game:
Third down for what?
Colorado State came into the game as one of the worst third-down offenses in all of college football, ranking 108th out of 127 FBS schools in third-down conversion rate (34.0 percent). But you wouldn’t have known it watching CSU quarterback Nick Stevens carve up the Rebels secondary in the first half.
Colorado State set the tone on the game’s opening drive, converting three third-downs in UNLV territory (all Stevens passes) to take a 7-0 lead. The touchdown came on a third-and-5 when Stevens hit backup tight end Danny Nwosu for an eight-yard score.
By the time the first half mercifully came to an end, Colorado State had picked up eight of 10 third-down attempts while running up a 35-0 lead. UNLV’s defense simply couldn’t get off the field, and by the time they finally found their footing in the second half (CSU was just 2-of-8 on third-downs after halftime) the damage had been done and the game was over.
Darius Mouton once again struggled in pass coverage, and safety Kenny Keys missed some crucial tackles, but Saturday’s performance has to fall on the entire unit.
Sneed streaky again
Dalton Sneed has had his ups and downs…and ups…and downs. From one week to the next he can seem like the long-term answer at quarterback, then subsequently look like he may never complete a pass again. That kind of variance is probably normal for a young quarterback, but it’s making life hard on the Rebels right now.
Without any consistency at quarterback (Sneed finished 7-of-23 for 185 yards with two touchdowns and one interception), it can be hard for UNLV to develop the kind of offensive rhythm so crucial to the Rebels’ run-based attack. Against CSU, the Rebels were unable to sustain drives and had run just 23 plays by the time Colorado State scored its fifth touchdown to make it 35-0.
Sneed definitely brings something to the table as the starting quarterback, as his mobility (15 rushes, 96 yards) and penchant for turning broken plays into big plays (on display here) are valuable assets. But until he develops into a more consistent passer, opponents will be able to focus on limiting the Rebels’ running game.
Running game stuffed
As mentioned above, the Rebels simply didn’t have the ball long enough to get into an offensive groove in the first half, and the guys who suffered the most were running backs Lexington Thomas and Charles Williams. The duo combined for just 12 carries on the day, with Thomas particularly getting the short shrift with only four totes. That’s obviously not enough volume for an offense built around running the ball (No. 17 in the nation in rushing offense entering the game).
When the ground game isn’t working, the Rebels still have to figure out a way to keep Thomas and Williams involved. Neither are good pass catchers out of the backfield—Thomas did have a 37-yard touchdown catch on Saturday, but he also dropped a swing pass that was ruled a lateral and recovered by Colorado State—but with the lack of depth and explosiveness in the receiving corps, there has to be another way to keep Thomas and Williams engaged in the offense.
A win over Colorado State would have moved UNLV to 4-4 on the season (and 3-1 on Mountain West play), needing just two more wins to become bowl eligible. That would have been very doable. Instead, the Rebels are 3-5 and need to squeeze three more wins out of the final four games in order to qualify for a postseason game.
Are there three more wins on the schedule? A road game at San Jose State next week seems winnable, as do home contests against Wyoming (Nov. 12) and Nevada-Reno (Nov. 26). But after watching UNLV’s level of play fluctuate so wildly from week to week, nothing can be taken for granted. If the Rebels are going to go on a run and make it to a bowl game, they’re going to have to earn it the hard way.