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Analysis: What Rebels can learn from Idaho win

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV QB Armani Rogers (1) threads his way through Howard defenders during their home-opening football game on Saturday, September 2, 2017. L.E. Baskow

Wed, Sep 13, 2017 (2 a.m.)

UNLV managed to get its season back on track by winning at Idaho on Saturday, and with a bye week coming up, now might be a good time to assess where the Rebels stand after two games and break down what they can do to keep the momentum going.

There were important signs of progress in the Idaho win. Offensively, the most important takeaway was the manner in which UNLV dominated on the ground. The offensive line completely leveled Idaho in the trenches, allowing the Rebels to run for 357 yards on 50 carries (7.1 yards per attempt).

Running back Lexington Thomas was the biggest beneficiary of the Rebels’ superior blocking. Thomas is a naturally shifty runner who likes to pick and choose his holes from behind the line of scrimmage, but that wasn’t necessary on Saturday — the offensive line opened such defined running lanes so quickly that Thomas just had to surge forward through the holes.

On UNLV’s first play from scrimmage, right guard Justin Polu blocked across the line to open a big hole in the middle, while right tackle Nathan Jacobson and center Zack Singer quickly got to the second level and sealed off the linebackers. The result was Thomas running straight up the middle, untouched, for an easy gain of eight yards:

Later in the first quarter, Polu actually slipped and fell to the ground while attempting to double-team the defensive tackle, but the hole was still so huge that Thomas was able to slice straight through the middle for another easy nine yards:

Diving straight up the middle for quick hitters is not Thomas’ preferred running style, but head coach Tony Sanchez said he got a better feel for it as the game went on. On this second half run, Thomas made one decisive cut to zoom past a defensive end who was left alone on an island trying to decipher the quarterback/running back zone read. The defender hesitated at the mesh point, and Thomas quickly burst past him with tremendous straight-line speed:

On Thomas’ second long touchdown run, it was the left side of the line that moved bodies around. At the snap, left tackle Kyle Saxelid stonewalled an Idaho linebacker, while left guard Jaron Caldwell surged to the second level and picked off the weakside linebacker. Idaho’s safety closed too quickly and overran the play, and from there Thomas just had to run straight ahead as fast as he could — something he is very good at:

When the offensive line is dominating like that, Thomas just has to hit the hole quickly and accelerate through the line of scrimmage. Sophomore running back Charles Williams is more of a natural straight-ahead runner, but now that he’s out for the season with an ankle injury, it will be up to Thomas to carry the load and produce big numbers every week.

The holes won’t be quite as sizable the rest of the way, as Mountain West defenses are bigger and faster than Idaho, but the Rebels can win if they execute their blocking like this consistently.

There were some positive signs on the defensive side of the ball, as well. The Rebels’ tackling was much improved over Week 1, and they were good on third downs, holding Idaho to 5-of-15 conversions. And they showed a wrinkle on Saturday that could serve them well in future games.

UNLV has usually played conservatively under Sanchez and defensive coordinator Kent Baer; the Rebels play a four-man front, usually with one end standing up and rushing. Other times, that end will drop into coverage, leaving a three-man rush to attempt to breach the pocket. Blitzing is generally kept to a minimum.

On Saturday, however, the coaching staff seemed more willing to gamble. They blitzed several times in the first half while the game was still close, and they didn’t just send one extra man — they sent two.

On this 2nd-and-12 play from the second quarter, the Rebels didn’t attempt to disguise their intentions, as two linebackers moved up to the line of scrimmage in an obvious blitz look. At the snap, all six Rebels rushed the passer, and the Idaho offensive line was overwhelmed. As a result, inside linebacker Brian Keyes got a free run at the QB, and he hurried the passer into an errant throw:

UNLV stopped the 3rd-and-12 on the next play and got off the field, making it an early win for the defense.

On this play from the third quarter, UNLV ran essentially the same play but with a slightly different look. The two linebackers stayed off the line of scrimmage and waited for the snap before tipping their hand and blitzing. Again, the six-man blitz allowed a linebacker to run straight to the QB unblocked, forcing another errant throw:

Big blitzes with six or more rushers are a gamble — Idaho had an open receiver on the second play above — but the chaos puts the onus on the quarterback to make a quick read and accurate throw under duress. Idaho couldn’t make the Rebels pay. If Sanchez and Baer see similar opportunities against Mountain West offenses, they may want to bring back these blitz looks in big situations.

While the Rebels won in blowout fashion, they didn’t play a perfect game. Once again, the offense left some points on the field due to unforced errors, and the defense got lucky on more than one occasion. So there will be plenty of teaching points for the coaching staff to emphasize over the bye week.

Devonte Boyd is UNLV’s biggest playmaker in the passing game, and he proved it again with an electrifying 94-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter. But aside from that highlight, there were a couple drives where Boyd didn’t deliver.

On this first-quarter play, the Rebels were facing a 2nd-and-16. Rogers got a clean pocket and delivered a perfect 10-yard strike to Boyd, placing the ball in a spot that should have given Boyd time and space to run after the catch. If Boyd didn’t pick up the first down, he at least would have gotten close enough to give UNLV a manageable third down. But Boyd was unable to haul it in:

Then, on this 3rd-and-goal play from the third quarter, Boyd had a chance to put the game away for UNLV. Rogers made his best throw of the game and hit him with a perfect strike in the back of the end zone, but the ball bounced off Boyd’s pads, leaving the Rebels to settle for a field goal:

Boyd is one of the best receivers in UNLV history, but he also dropped a pass in Week 1. He’s going to be a huge part of the offense all season as the team’s top deep threat and Rogers’ best security blanket, so the sooner he fixes his issue with drops, the sooner the Rebels can rev up their passing attack.

Defensively, there’s no question that UNLV still needs to clean up the way it defends the deep ball. It was a huge liability last year, and so far this season it doesn’t seem to have gotten much better.

On the game’s first possession, Idaho went with a play-action pass on 3rd-and-1 and UNLV let a Vandals receiver run up the sideline uncovered. Fortunately for the Rebels, Idaho quarterback Matt Linehan came up way short on his throw, or this would have been an easy touchdown and a pretty bad way for the Rebels to start a must-win game:

Granted, that was a play-action call on a running down, and the Rebels had a lot of defenders committed to the line of scrimmage, which makes the blown coverage downfield at least somewhat understandable. On this next play from the second quarter, the UNLV defense had no such excuse.

The Rebels rushed four and played zone coverage in the secondary, so the deep part of the field should have been covered. But receiver Reuben Mwehla ran past UNLV cornerback Robert Jackson and got open for another long touchdown opportunity. This time, Linehan put the throw right on the money, but UNLV lucked out when Mwehla dropped the ball:

That’s 14 points Idaho should have hung on the scoreboard thanks to UNLV’s leaky secondary. And there was more.

The most blatant example of the Rebels’ deep coverage issue came midway through the third quarter. Idaho was backed up inside its own 20-yard line, and UNLV was protecting a 27-3 lead, so the primary focus at that point in the game should have been on preventing big plays at all costs. Instead, running back Aaron Duckworth leaked out of the backfield and flew past cornerback Tim Hough, getting behind the defense for another long touchdown opportunity:

Again, the Rebels were bailed out by Linehan’s weak arm. The throw was short and Duckworth had to wait for the ball to come down; if the pass had been on the mark, Duckworth would have scored.

The good news is, the issue appears to be fixable. The secondary seemed confused by deep routes at times, especially when playing zone coverage, so a bye week spent studying film and getting practice reps could help the defensive backs settle in.

If that happens, the defense should provide enough resistance to allow the offense to win some games. That’s been the Rebels’ 2017 game plan all along, and based on their win over Idaho, it looks like a strategy that could be successful.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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