Facts and Factors
• UCLA hosts UNLV in its season home-opener this Saturday at the Rose Bowl. Kick-off is approximately 5:00 p.m. and will be televised by the Pac-12 Networks, with Ted Robinson, Yogi Roth and Cindy Brunson calling the game.
• UCLA is 0-1, coming off a tough overtime loss to Texas A&M in College station, 31-24.
• UNLV is 1-0, beating FCS Jackson State, 63-13.
• Withe the loss, UCLA fell from #16 and #24 in the polls to unranked.
• UCLA started the 2015 road season at UNLV, with the game being the first time the two schools had met in football. UCLA beat UNLV in that first meeting a year ago, 37-3. In that game, the Bruins held the Rebels to 56 yards passing while running up 528 yards themselves. That day, though, UCLA still wasn't hitting on all cylinders. Paul Perkins ran for 151 yards and two touchdowns.
• UCLA is 42-6-1 all-time against teams in the current Mountain West Conference. In fact, UCLA has a winning record against every team in the Mountain West, and has only lost to Air Force (6-4-1) and Fresno State (6-2).
• UNLV has played seven programs that were members of the Pac-12 Conference at the time, and has a 4-14 record against them. It’s actually 1-0 against ASU and 3-2 against Oregon State.
• UNLV is helmed by second-year coach Tony Sanchez (42), who posted a 3-9 record in his first year with the Runnin' Rebels last season. Before UNLV, Sanchez spent six years at Bishop Gorman, posting a record of 85-5, and netting six consecutive 4A championships. His 2014 team finished 15-0 and won the mythical high school national championship. Bishop Gorman’s football program and facilities rival some FBS programs, and Sanchez was an integral part of that. In fact, some observers have said that Bishop Gorman’s facilities easily surpass UNLV’s. In Sanchez's first season at UNLV, the consensus is that he brought some much-needed energy and discipline to the program and, while 3-9 might not be very impressive, it was the first time in 12 seasons UNLV topped the two-mark in a season. Sanchez brought in what was considered a good recruiting class for UNLV this off-season, populated with some standout JC players. Sanchez played ball at New Mexico State and started his coaching career there as a graduate assistant in 1996. He was a positions coach at various high schools until he was the head coach at San Ramon (Calif.) California High in 2004, and then Bishop Gorman in 2009, and is considered a good offensive mind.
• UCLA has won its last five home openers: 2011 San Jose State; 2012 Nebraska; 2013 Nevada; 2014 Memphis and 2015 Virginia.
• The 2016 season marks the 35th year UCLA has called the Rose Bowl its home.
• Beating Jackson State last week was the first time UNLV has started a season with a win since 2009. The Rebels haven't won a season-opening road game since 2007.
• Sanchez has introduced new Runnin' Rebel uniforms, with "Las Vegas" and the diamond image of the famous Stardust sign on the pant legs. The back of the helmet also include a version of the famous "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas" sign. Sanchez will introduce a black helmet to go along with a red version he unveiled last year, after UNLV had worn only a silver helmet for 33 straight years.
• There are 39 players on the Rebels' roster that come from California, more than the 22 from Nevada.
• UNLV has had only one winning season in the last 15 years, and that was 2013 when they went 7-6.
• Since becoming a 1-A (FBS) program in 1979, the Rebels' have only had 8 winning seasons. It's best was in 1984 when it went 11-2 and finished first in the PCAA (the Pacific Coast Athletic Association, the precursor to the Big West Conference, which stopped sponsoring football in 2000).
• UCLA is favored by 26.5.
• The weather forecast for Saturday in Pasadena calls for a high of 86 degrees. It should be in the low 80s at game time and low 70s by the fourth quarter.
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.
UCLA's Offense vs. UNLV's Defense
In the same way that UNLV's offense was surprisingly not horrible last year, UNLV's defense was somehow even worse than you might have thought. The Rebels allowed almost six yards per carry last year which is just...stunningly bad. Teams had a slightly harder time passing on the Rebels, but that was more a product of how awful their run defense was than anything.
It wasn't necessarily a scheme issue, as defensive coordinator Kent Baer has some experience, but the sheer lack of talent and numbers. The three starting linebackers had to play probably over 90% of snaps because there was just zero talented depth behind them. This year, UNLV has bolstered virtually all positions with JC and transfer talent in the hope of giving the Rebels some real rotations to work with, which should help the overall effectiveness of the defense. There's nowhere to go but up, after all.
The defensive line runs a little bit bigger than it did last year, but there isn't a whole lot of experience. Junior nose tackle Mike Hughes (6'2, 315) started games last year, and he gives the Rebels a big run-stopping presence on the interior, but he's the one with significant starting experience. That said, the Rebels will start two seniors at defensive end in Iggy Porchia (6'2, 240) and Jeremiah Valoaga (6'6, 255). Valoaga is probably the one to watch out for there -- in just six games last year, he recorded 2.5 sacks -- which, granted, doesn't sound like a lot, but he was second on the team despite playing in only half the games. The other defensive tackle position will be manned by sophomore Wily Salanoa-Alo (6'0, 280). Though Porchia and Salanoa-Alo didn't start last year, each played in all 12 games. Junior defensive end Mark Finau (6'3, 230) is probably the key reserve to look out for at defensive end (he started some last year), and Jason Fao, a junior defensive tackle, figures to work in on the interior.
Linebacker is probably the closest thing to a strength this defense has. Weakside linebacker Tau Lotulelei (6'1, 235) is the star, and he's a legitimate talent. There's an argument to be made that he's the best linebacker in the Mountain West this year, or at least in the conversation, and he has good bloodlines, with a brother in the NFL. He led the Rebels in tackles last year and will likely do so again in 2016. He'll be joined by junior Matt Lea (5'10, 220) at strong side linebacker, who also started last year, and senior middle linebacker Ryan McAleenan (6'2, 220) who also has extensive starting experience. In the depth, importantly, UNLV has added a couple of transfers in senior Lakeith Walls (6'3, 235) from Illinois and junior Brian Keyes (6'1, 255), who started out at Arizona before transferring to JC. The two should give the group an overall depth and talent boost.
The secondary is quite a bit more experienced than last year The best player in the group is probably senior cornerback Torry McTyer (6'0, 195). He actually had 10 pass breakups last year, which is both good and bad. Good, because it means he has some ability to make plays on the ball, but bad because it means that teams felt relatively comfortable throwing on him. Senior free safety Kenny Keys (6'4, 200), who started last year, is another player with significant starting experience in the group. At the remaining corner and nickel spots, UNLV will start a pair of sophomores, Darius Mouton (5'10, 170) and Tim Hough (5'11, 195), and at the remaining safety spot, the Rebels will start senior Troy Hawthorne (6'3, 210). Each of those three played extensively last year, and the hope is that the group can build on the experience of last year to turn into one of the better units in the Mountain West this season.
UCLA's offense had a sub-par day in the opener at Texas A&M, with Josh Rosen putting together an uncharacteristically shaky performance at quarterback, aided by a bunch of drops from the receivers and some porous blocking from the offensive line, tight ends, and backs at various points. It was actually a little surprising, given all of that, that the Bruins were able to muster the amount of offense they did in the loss.
We would anticipate Rosen playing better against UNLV and beyond -- while we wouldn't call his performance against the Aggies the absolute possible nadir for him, it wasn't too far off, and we'd be a little surprised if he struggled like that again this season. The receivers, as well, should catch the ball better than they did in College Station, now that the new rotations have been game-tested a little bit. Given the performances in the opener, we wouldn't be shocked to see an even bigger increase in time and targets for guys like Austin Roberts and Kenny Walker, and we're hopeful that Theo Howard might find some playing time this week.
The running backs, in terms of running the ball, had a nice day, with both Sotonye Jamabo and Bolu Olorunfunmi putting together respectable days on the ground. We'd like to see Olorunfunmi get more carries going forward, though, as he was arguably the more effective of the two, and blocked a bit better as well. Nate Starks could also make his return this week as well (he sat out last week for reasons undisclosed).
The offensive line is where the worries really remain. There isn't a quick fix to the issues they showed in game one, or throughout fall camp. We would anticipate Conor McDermott playing better after having to match up against probably the top pass rusher in college football in week one, but the interior of the offensive line, where a lot of the issues cropped up, is still the same work in progress. Poasi Moala was pulled from the game in the second half for either injury or performance, so it'll be interesting to see if there's a change at that right guard position.
Once again, we really have a hard time seeing UNLV's talent matching up with UCLA's in a really credible way. The Rebels should be better defensively than they were a year ago, but even better defensively really doesn't make much of a difference against a team that beat them by 34 points a year ago. The Bruins did have some issues moving the ball at times against UNLV last year, but we tend to think that was a bit of a hangover effect from Rosen's epic first game against Virginia -- there shouldn't be any such hangover effect this year, as Rosen and the Bruins are in need of a good offensive performance.
As with the defense vs. the offense, this game represents an opportunity to work on things that the Bruins will need against the tougher opponents on the schedule. If the goal is to commit as much as possible to the scheme they've designed through the offseason, we'd like to see them work extensively under center, as that was the biggest area of weakness against Texas A&M.
UCLA should be able to do what it wants against the Rebels. If the Bruins once again have trouble running between the tackles, as they did against A&M, that will be a huge cause for concern, as this is likely the least talented defensive line UCLA will face this year.
UNLV is starting a new kicker at both placekicker and punter in sophomore transfer Evan Pantels (5'10, 180). He made all nine of his PATs in week one and averaged 35.5 yards per punt, but that's about all we have to go on since this is his first year as a starter.
McTyer will return kicks for the Rebels, and this is his first year in that duty, but he's a reasonably fast and shifty playmaker who could do some nice things for the Rebels at that spot. Sophomore Brandon Presley (6'0, 180) will return punts, and, again, this is his first year doing so.
For UCLA, the Bruins can take major solace in the relative effectiveness of the kicking game in the opener. Freshman kicker J.J. Molson absolutely looked the part, making three of four field goals with the one miss a pretty pressured kick at the end of the first half from 48 yards out. Freshman punter Austin Kent was arguably even better, booming several long kicks with good hang time. UCLA might have its next great pair of specialists in the two freshmen.
At returner, Ishmael Adams didn't get much opportunity to shine, but against UNLV, he could find some more openings. Kickoff and punt coverage units looked pretty effective in game one against Christian Kirk, and hopefully that returns to being a strength for the Bruins in 2016.
It would take a disaster on the order of the destruction of Pompeii for UCLA to lose this game. The talent differential is so great that Tracy and I could probably coach the team to victory against the Rebels. Winning this game isn't really the issue.
What we'd like to see is steps toward working on the issues that cropped up in game one and seem to be left over from last season. The run defense and the pass rush were effectively as bad through the last three quarters of the game on Saturday as they were most of last season. Given the upcoming opponents on the schedule, this would seem to serve as a good opportunity to try to do some new things, like more extensive blitzing and run blitzing.
Offensively, we'd like to see UCLA try to do pretty much everything in its arsenal. After watching game one, there's certainly some intriguing complexity to UCLA's scheme, but equally clear is that some kinks need to be ironed out, particularly with the blocking scheme, route-running, and timing. This game is well-timed to give the Bruins the opportunity for live reps to build on some of the things they've worked on in practice.
As for the game itself, UNLV will probably score a bit. Stanton is a better quarterback than they've had in a while, and they have some talent at running back and in Boyd at receiver. The Bruins, without McKinley, will likely have some issues dealing with a dual-threat quarterback, so we'd anticipate UNLV being able to put together a few drives. On the other side, though, UCLA would have to have another inept game on the order of the first to not score absolutely at will against this Rebel defense.
What we'll anticipate is that UCLA will work on some things and not necessarily put the blowout screws to UNLV this game, and the Rebels will generate enough offense to make the final score semi-respectable, even if the outcome is never really in doubt.