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Game Week: UNLV's Offense vs. UCLA's Defense

Sep. 9 -- What kind of talent does UNLV have on offense that could offset UCLA's Defense?

UNLV’s Offense vs. UCLA’s Defense

UNLV, historically, is one of the worst programs in the entire FBS. The winningest head coach in the program’s history is Tony Knap, who won 47 games over the course of six seasons in the late 70s. He was followed by Harvey Hyde, who posted a winning record over his four years in Las Vegas before he left following the 1985 season.

After those two, though, none of the six head coaches who followed finished with a winning record at UNLV. Most recently, Bobby Hauck lasted five years, and in those five years, he won just 13 games. And let’s emphasize something here: he lasted five years despite winning just 13 games. Expectations are subterranean at UNLV. The word “moribund” comes perpetually to mind when considering how to describe the program.

In that context, UNLV made the bold (or, perhaps, not-so-bold) decision this offseason to hire local high school coach Tony Sanchez to helm the program. To be fair, Sanchez was in charge of one of the most talent-rich programs in the nation in Bishop Gorman, which has won some absurd number of Nevada state titles and boasts better facilities than many college programs. He actually is a rarity in the coaching profession as a whole, in that he has coached a team that beat Josh Rosen.

But he’s still just a year removed from coaching at a high school, and no matter how successful a high school program is, there is a huge leap from high school to even a lowly FBS program like UNLV. Sanchez did a nice job in the offseason by hiring some experienced coaches on both sides of the ball, and on the offensive side, he hired Barney Cotton as his coordinator. Cotton has a wealth of experience as a major college OC, having served in that role at New Mexico State, Nebraska, and Iowa State.

We only have one game to go on so far, but Sanchez and Cotton’s intention going forward is for UNLV to be a power-type offense. At this stage, against Northern Illinois last week, there were some power elements, with a tight end and a fullback, and some points where they went to more of a spread look, with three or four wide receivers. For this first year, and perhaps for the first couple of years for Sanchez, the offense will most likely require some mixing and matching.

The Running Rebels are not without some experience and talent. At quarterback, UNLV returns senior Blake Decker (6’2, 215), who started 12 of 13 games last year after transferring in from Scottsdale Community College. He’s an unusual case at the college level, as he not only attended community college but also served a two-year church mission, and he’ll actually turn 25 later this month. Last year was marked by real inconsistency from the quarterback. He put up some big yardage totals but completed just 57.6% of his passes and threw 18 interceptions (against just 15 touchdowns). He can run a little, as he averaged 2.5 yards per carry last season on 147 carries, but he’s more of a scrambler than a designed dual-threat. In the first game of the season, he was really inefficient, completing just 21 of 39 passes. The big thing for him will be reducing his interception rate, since UNLV simply can’t afford to give up offensive possessions this year considering how bad the defense is likely going to be. Sophomore Kurt Palandech (6’2, 185) will also get some reps. He’s more of an athletic dual-threat, and he actually had five rushes for 42 yards and a touchdown against NIU, so he’s definitely someone to keep an eye on.

Blake Decker, USA Today

Decker will have a few talented targets to throw the ball to, and the emphasis there should be on “a few”. Right now, UNLV has just six scholarship receivers. The most talented of the group is probably sophomore Devonte Boyd (6’1, 175) who led the team in receiving last year with 65 catches for 980 yards. He’s a playmaker, with the ability to stretch the field, and he has followed up his freshman campaign with a great start to 2015, catching five balls for 107 yards against Northern Illinois, including a long 64-yard touchdown. Sophomore Kendal Keys (6’4, 200) is probably the next most important name to know. Keys is a big, athletic possession receiver who can win jump balls and is a solid red zone threat. Last season, he caught 24 passes for 310 yards and two touchdowns, but his usage should increase dramatically this season. Against NIU, he had six catches for 62 yards, and that’s probably going to be a fairly typical game for him this year. Senior Aaron Criswell (5’10, 180) redshirted last season and will provide another speed element on the outside for the Rebels. He showed off his big play potential against NIU with a 41-yard catch and run. Senior Anthony Williams (5’11, 195) rounds out the main rotation of receivers. He started seven games last year and had 24 catches for 234 yards. He had five catches last week for 52 yards. Senior tight end Jake Phillips (6’6, 250) will also factor into the passing game somewhat. He’s more of a big, blocking tight end than a nimble pass-catcher, but he’s still managed to haul in 48 passes over the last four years along with a couple of touchdowns.

The running game is a work in progress. Against NIU, the Rebels averaged just 3.5 yards per carry, which is identical to last year’s anemic output. Junior Keith Whitely (5’9, 195) is the starter, after starting several games last season and leading the team in rushing with 504 yards. He is fairly quick, but doesn’t have incredible top-end speed, and he’s fairly small which prevents him from generating much push on his own up front. He actually does better as a receiver out of the backfield, and he can be a more dangerous when he gets matched up in space on a linebacker. Senior George Naufahu (6’0, 215) will also get some carries. He’s more of a power back than Whitely and will be much more likely to get short-yardage and goal-line carries. True freshman Lexington Thomas (5’9, 165) is the one other name to know in this group. He is very slight, but boasts pretty good speed and has big-play potential.

The offensive line was better than expected against NIU last week. Now, that’s not to say the unit was particularly good, but the offensive line was expected to be pretty awful this year for the Rebels, and it was actually fairly decent for the first half against Northern Illinois. The left side in particular had a strong showing, with sophomore left tackle Kyle Saxelid (6’7, 270), who started four games for UNLV last season. He was particularly good in pass protection, where she used his length to fend off pass-rushers. Senior left guard Eric Noone (6’2, 295), who started six games last season, was also solid in both the run and pass game. The right side and center were another story. Sophomore right guard Chris Lopez (6’4, 280), a first-time starter, really struggled in the pass game, allowing way too many defenders to run into the backfield unchecked. Sophomore right tackle J'ondray Sanders (6’5, 260), also a first-time starter, was more up-and-down, with a mostly solid first half followed by a mostly dreadful second half. At center, junior Will Kreitler (6’0, 290) was fairly nondescript. He transferred in from Scottsdale Community College in the offseason and was OK in his first start.

In general, UNLV’s offensive performance was fairly good against NIU. The Rebels scored 30 points and averaged a solid 5.67 yards per play. Whether that will be enough to keep pace with the Bruins remains to be seen.

UCLA had a solid defensive showing in the first game under new defensive coordinator Tom Bradley. The Bruins didn’t show a lot of exotic blitzing, and only sparingly pressured more than four guys, but they still generated a fairly decent pass rush, especially in the latter stages of the game. The run defense was mostly excellent, especially up front, with defensive tackle Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes combining to play an excellent game.

Photo by Steve Cheng

Unfortunately for the Bruins, Vanderdoes tore his ACL during the game and will miss the remainder of the season. In his place, junior defensive tackle Eli Ankou and sophomore defensive linemen Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Matt Dickerson could see considerably more time. Ankou had a very good game as well against Virginia, and Dickerson showed off some nice interior pass-rush moves, especially in the second half. No one is likely going to be able to replace Vanderdoes’ sheer strength and ability to redirect the running game, but the hope is that the Bruins might be able to compensate with a little more pass rush from that spot.

At linebacker, UCLA had some issues tackling at points, with Kenny Young struggling a little bit in the first half. He picked it up in the second half and started to look a little more comfortable. It seemed that he often found himself keeping his eyes on the quarterback rather than on his man during pass plays which left him out of position to make a play. He missed a couple of tackles early, but again got better as the game wore on. Myles Jack had a couple of bad penalties on what were called on the field as horse collar tackles (one was actually a facemask). He’s an incredible athlete, and did some excellent things in the run game especially, but he needs to continue to be more disciplined.

The edge rush was pretty good all game. Deon Hollins had a beautiful one-on-one sack where he dipped perfectly around the offensive tackle to run down the quarterback. He and Takkarist McKinley are expected to generate a good amount of sacks in one-on-one situations this year, though they generated just one against Virginia.

In the secondary, Randall Goforth suffered a neck injury against Virginia, but it wasn’t thought to be serious. Assuming he’s good to go, UCLA has a very experienced secondary that, upon third viewing, actually played pretty well against Virginia. Fabian Moreau got locked up in coverage at one point for a pass interference, but he was largely pretty good outside of that. The safeties, in particular Adarius Pickett, were very good against the run.

UCLA was facing a relatively poor offense in Virginia, so it’s hard to take too much away from the game. The Bruins did mostly what they needed to do and didn’t show all that many pressure looks against the Cavaliers’ fairly conservative offense. This probably won’t be the week where we see a ton of pressure either.

ADVANTAGE: UCLA

We saw enough from UCLA’s defense against UNLV to confirm much of what we thought exiting fall camp: this is a fast, athletic defense with the ability to shut down interior run games. Now, with Vanderdoes’ injury, the interior run defense could take a hit, but we liked what we saw from Ankou, Dickerson, and Tuioti-Mariner on Saturday. There will be some drop-off, no doubt, but given the depth behind him, the injury isn’t necessarily catastrophic for UCLA’s prospects this season.

The thing is, even if UCLA has a weakness now at the front of the defense, UNLV is not the team to take advantage of it. The Rebels’ running game is fairly poor, and UNLV doesn’t have the kind of bruising runner it takes to run successfully up the middle. Whitley likes to bounce runs outside, and that actually plays to another one of the strengths of UCLA’s defense, the ability to pursue laterally.

UNLV has some talent. The receivers are fairly good, and the offensive line is not nearly as bad as many expected. There’s some potential for UNLV to put up some points, though it will require Decker playing fairly mistake-free, which has been a chore for him throughout his career. We think, though, that UCLA will have an easier time generating a pass rush against UNLV’s offensive line than the Bruins had against Virginia. We could easily see Hollins getting a couple of sacks, and McKinley getting his first of the year.

The difference in talent on the two teams is just so substantial that it’s hard to see UNLV winning either side of this matchup. If the Bruins have the kind of defensive talent and coaching that we think they do, this should be a dominant showing.


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