UNLV's Offense vs. UCLA's Defense
Let's just get this out of the way first: UNLV wasn't good in any way, shape, or form last year. The Rebels lost nine games, and one of their three wins came against an FCS opponent.
Now, that said, the Rebels were surprisingly frisky at times, posting wins at Nevada, against Hawaii, and also coming close to knocking off Fresno State on the road, Wyoming on the road, and Northern Illinois on the road. The team was clearly mentally tougher than in years past, and you have to give some credit to new coach Tony Sanchez, who seemed to connect well with his players in year one. Even against UCLA, the Rebels never really got deluged -- the Bruins methodically scored 37 points and allowed just three, but it never felt like a pure pasting.
UNLV opened 2016 in an unfamiliar way -- with a win. Though it came against FCS Jackson State, the win was UNLV's first in an opener since 2009, and no matter who you're facing, winning a game by 50 points (final margin was 63-13) is an impressive feat. We don't want to take too much from the game, since it came against such an inferior opponent (Jackson State is a pretty bad FCS team), but there were some nice developments for the Rebel offense.
First and foremost, UNLV actually has a talented player at quarterback this year. Junior transfer Johnny Stanton (6'2, 245), who bounced back to UNLV after leaving Nebraska for junior college, got the start against Jackson State and put together some nice statistics (the game was not televised, so we don't have much to go on). He only threw the ball 12 times, but connected on 10 of them for a total of 217 yards and three touchdowns. Stanton, who always had dual-threat ability in high school, also ran for 35 yards on four carries, but we doubt UNLV was trying to run him much. It's a good bet that against tougher opponents, the Rebels will let Stanton make more plays with his legs.
At running back, three players got the bulk of the carries against Jackson State: sophomore Lexington Thomas (5'9, 170), freshman Charles Williams (5'9, 175), and sophomore Xzaviar Campbell (5'11, 215). Thomas and Campbell were both significant contributors last year, though they didn't start, and each averaged over five yards per carry, so there's some talent there. Campbell, as you might imagine given his dimensions compared to the other two, is more of a power back, while Thomas and Williams trend more toward the speedy, scat-back type. Thomas can also make an impact as a receiver out of the backfield, and he'll likely get the bulk of the carries on Saturday as well.
The receivers are led by junior Devonte Boyd (6'1, 180), who took his game to another level in 2015, recording over 900 yards on 54 catches. That's his second straight 900+ yard season, and if he put together another such year, he'll probably be close to being the top receiver in UNLV history -- as a junior. He's a talented deep threat who can challenge defenses over the top but also make tough catches over the middle. He'll likely be the main focus of most defenses looking to lock down on UNLV's passing attack this year. What's really stunning about Boyd's production is he has done it without much talent at quarterback. With Stanton now in the fold, Boyd could be poised for a very nice year indeed (he recorded four catches for 135 yards and three touchdowns in the game against Jackson State).
The rest of the receiving corps is very unproven. Th either two starters are both freshmen -- Darren Woods (6'0, 215) and Mekhi Stevenson (6'0, 180), and every key rotation receiver is a freshman. At tight end, senior Andrew Price (6'6, 255) is the guy, and he had a nice year as a receiver last year, recording 17 catches for a little over 170 yards. He's certainly a big body.
The offensive line is pretty experienced, with three returning starters and a transfer with experience fitting into the group. The leader of the unit is senior center Will Kreitler (6'0, 295), and probably the most talented player in the bunch is left tackle Kyle Saxelid (6'7, 290). Sophomore Nathan Jacobson (6'5, 290) will start at right tackle as the other returnee, and at left guard Michael Chevalier (6'3, 300), a JC transfer, will earn the nod. The lone player without any starting experience is right guard Justin Polu (6'4, 315), a redshirt freshman. The group is considerably bigger than last year, when the line probably averaged more like 270 pounds than the 300 or so they average this year, and the hope is that it will allow the Rebels to establish a more consistent rushing attack.
UCLA's defense had a somewhat disconcerting performance against Texas A&M in week one. The Bruins looked very good for about a quarter, but when Takkarist McKinley went down with a groin issue, the Bruins suddenly looked quite a bit like the defense that got steamrolled at times last season.
On the ground, UCLA gave up over five yards per carry en route to a 203-yard rushing performance for the Aggies, and A&M was not a good rushing team last year. While the Aggies might have improved in the offseason, they were still starting three new players on the interior of the offensive line, and had a mostly new backfield as well, so the ease with which they were able to run is a concern for UCLA going forward.
On the bright side, UCLA's passing defense not only held up statistically, much like last year, but also passed the eyeball test, which it didn't necessarily do last season. Aside from some slight issues at nickel, where Randall Goforth struggled a bit against Christian Kirk, the Bruins did a nice job locking down Texas A&M's very talented receivers and limiting them to just 239 yards through the air. Fabian Moreau and Nathan Meadors, through one game, look better than any starting tandem UCLA has had at corner in the Mora era, though it is just one game. At safety, Jaleel Wadood had a nice game, but two reserves, Tahaan Goodman and Adarius Pickett, flashed quite a bit, and given their effectiveness, we could see UCLA starting a lineup that includes those two sooner rather than later.
With the improvement in the pass defense, UCLA could opt to pressure more with the front seven going forward. It wouldn't be Jim Mora or Tom Bradley's M.O. to do so, but given the play of the secondary in game one, and the inability to generate much of a pass rush without McKinley, it might be worth exploring as an option. Of course, Deon Hollins could return this week, and that could help the pass rush as well.
After an offseason spent trying to improve the defense, giving up the amount of yardage they did to a relatively poor rushing team is a worry. With BYU and Stanford coming in the following weeks, figuring out how to fix the run defense is critical this week.
We semi-seriously considered making this an Even advantage, because, again, the Rebel offense is not a complete joke -- UNLV has a little bit of talent, and adding Stanton to the mix certainly helps them. But the talent advantage tips so heavily in UCLA's favor that it's hard to picture this side of the matchup tilting at all in favor of UNLV. The Rebels may score more than the three points they scored last year, but we'd be pretty shocked if they scored more than 20 non-junk time points.
UNLV will probably look to exploit UCLA's issues on the ground, and without McKinley (who we're anticipating will sit this week), we imagine that the Rebels will test the speed of UCLA's containing edge players. Look for a good amount of zone read from Stanton, and we would imagine that UNLV will look to get on the edge of the defense to try to exploit UCLA's lack of speed at defensive end. Even with that, we think UCLA has enough speed at linebacker to keep UNLV's running game from really getting going.
UCLA's secondary is probably too talented for UNLV to test consistently, and with Boyd being the one true talent for UCLA to deal with. We would imagine that the Bruins will focus on him to whatever extent they actually game plan for this UNLV team, and if he starts to make an impact, the Bruins could bracket him, since there aren't many other weapons in the receiving corps for UNLV.
The Bruins should use this game to work on things they'll need for the following two games, and into conference play. Even though they shouldn't need to blitz UNLV much to win this side of the matchup, we'd like to see them work on some different pressures and blitzes to iron out any kinks before they'll really need them against BYU and Stanford. Of course, we don't expect much pressure, because that doesn't ever appear to be UCLA's strategy, but we dare to dream here at BRO.