As UNLV prepares to play at Air Force on Saturday, the Rebels are reaching a critical point in the schedule. The team’s oft-stated goal of qualifying for a bowl game is still within reach, but as they sit at 2-3 after five weeks, each remaining contest could end up being the difference between postseason play and another disappointing finish.
If UNLV loses at Air Force (1-4, 2-3 in Mountain West play), the Rebels would have to go 4-2 over the second half of the season in order to finish with the .500 record required to gain bowl eligibility. For reference, UNLV hasn’t gone 4-2 over any stretch of games since the first half of the 2013 season, when the program’s last bowl-bound crew won four straight under then-head coach Bobby Hauck.
Tony Sanchez would prefer not to be backed into such a corner, and though he’ll take the Rebels into Colorado Springs as underdogs, this appears to be a winnable game for UNLV.
The first priority, according to Sanchez, will be defending Air Force’s triple-option rushing attack. The Falcons rank 18th nationally in rushing yards per game with an average of 241.5 yards and fourth in rushing percentage, as 79.4 percent of the team’s plays are run attempts. That scheme has produced 36.4 points per game, best in the Mountain West.
Slowing the AFA ground game will be a difficult task for a UNLV defense that ranks near the bottom of Division I in most categories, but the Rebels have been preparing for this situation for a long time.
At his mid-week press conference, Sanchez said the Rebels dedicated significant time in training camp to defending the option and that the team used some of its bye-week practices before the Ohio State game as a refresher.
Sanchez hopes the early prep work pays off on Saturday.
“We did it in fall camp, we did it during our bye week,” Sanchez said. “We wanted to make sure when we got to this week on the schedule, there was some familiarity with calls and checks. Obviously there’s a lot of stuff we’re going to add in [this week] as we prepare. The biggest thing, we talked about phases, you’ve got to tackle all three…You’ve got the snap, then you’ve got the dive, you’ve got the QB keep and you’ve got the pitch, and all three phases have to be eliminated on every single snap.”
A week after facing off against a power-running San Diego State team that often sent workhorse running back Rashaad Penny straight up the middle (to the tune of 27 carries, 177 yards and two touchdowns), the UNLV defense will have to shift gears to stick with Air Force’s more egalitarian approach. Through five games, five AFA players have more than 100 rushing yards, and seven Falcons have scored rushing touchdowns.
Senior defensive lineman Mike Hughes said the best way to deal with the diverse Air Force run game is to occupy blockers up front and let the Rebels’ linebackers make tackles.
“With an offense like this, I think the biggest key for the defensive linemen this week is keeping those guys off our ‘backers,” Hughes said. “The ‘backers have to flow a lot through the alleys, so us allowing them to get there and not have [Air Force’s offensive] linemen at our second level will be huge.”
If the UNLV defense can manage to thwart a handful of Air Force drives, that should bode well for the Rebels. Air Force is not a good defensive team, and UNLV should be able to move the ball on the ground with running back Lexington Thomas and quarterback Armani Rogers.
Thomas was held to a season-low 54 yards in last week’s loss to San Diego State, but the junior speedster should cruise past that mark early in the first half on Saturday. Air Force ranks second-to-last in the nation in run defense, allowing 6.7 yards per attempt.
Sanchez wants to lean on Thomas’s legs, then let Rogers mix in some big plays down the field in the passing game.
“We’ve got to go out and do a great job of establishing the running game and getting back to doing that,” Sanchez said. “One of the things [Air Force is] going to do, is they’re always going to try to put one more guy in the box than you do. So it gives some opportunities in the passing game. I think this is a game where we need to run the football, but also be efficient in the air.”
While the statistics seem to indicate an impending shootout, Sanchez wants his defense to hold the line and give the Rebels a chance to get back on track for a bowl game.
“We expect our defense to play better,” Sanchez said. “We haven’t played great defense. We’ve given up a ton of yards at this point in the year. And we’ve played some good football teams, but there’s been a couple times when I’ve felt we haven’t tackled as well as we could have in space, haven’t been able to apply as much pressure as we wanted to on the quarterbacks, and we’ve got to get better. It’s time to start now.”