Las Vegas Sun

October 2, 2023


Mondays with Mike: Rebels focusing on red zone improvement

UNLV-New Mexico matchup could hinge on who fixes leaks inside the opponent’s 20-yard line

Utah vs UNLV

With an improved defensive performance, in which the Rebels forced five fumbles and recovered two, the UNLV offense stalled, scoring just one touchdown on five trips to the redzone in a 35-15 loss to No. 24 Utah Saturday night.

UNLV vs. Utah

UNLV's Jason Beauchamp puts his arm around Wiselet Rouzard as they walk off their field following their 35-15 loss to Utah Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium. Launch slideshow »

Next game

  • Opponent: New Mexico
  • Date: Oct. 24, 5 p.m.
  • Where: Albuquerque, N.M.
  • TV: The Mtn. (Cox Channel 334)
  • Radio: ESPN Radio 1100 AM
  • The Line: UNLV by 3

Editor's note: Each Monday, UNLV football coach Mike Sanford meets with the media to discuss last weekend's action and next weekend's matchup. So each week the Sun will bring you notes and quotes discussing both.

In 2008 — and oddly enough for the first part of 2009 — once inside of an opponent's 20-yard line, the strategy was pretty simple for the UNLV offense.

Put the ball in the air, wait and then watch Phillip Payne catch it.

The fade play worked practically on command for the Rebels during the Western High product's freshman campaign, but now opposing defenses are forcing UNLV to go in a different direction in the red zone.

And, obviously, it's working.

After tying with Ohio State as the nation's most efficient red zone offense a year ago, scoring 95 percent of the time, the Rebels are now in a tie for 89th out of 120 FBS teams, finishing the job in some form on just 77 percent of those occasions.

"I'd say it's a combination of a lot of things," UNLV coach Mike Sanford said in explaining his team's lack of red zone production through seven games. "The run game in general in the red zone has been hit and miss. To be successful in the red zone, you've got to be able to run the football.

"I think obviously people have studied us. Obviously people have done some things to take away Phillip Payne. We still have gotten there this year, but they've had some creative things to stop him. We've had some counter measures, but we haven't executed them in the way that I envisioned and we had envisioned."

Payne's still had a coming-of-age sophomore season, with 45 catches for 463 yards and four touchdown grabs.

But among the measures used so far to eliminate Payne as a threat in the red zone have been press coverage by the cornerbacks, plus safety help up top, creating tough double-teams to go against.

Early in the season, the Rebels were able to somewhat neutralize it with another tall presence in the red zone in the form of 6-foot-5 senior receiver Rodelin Anthony, but he's missed three of the team's last four games, first with a concussion and last week with an ankle injury.

Red zone scoring could very well be a deciding factor this weekend when 2-5 UNLV travels to face winless New Mexico.

While UNLV's been uncharacteristically bad when knocking on the goal line, New Mexico's been even worse, as the Lobos' 58 percent efficiency in the red zone is tied for last in the FBS.

Taking the Lobos seriously

Despite New Mexico's 0-6 record, the Rebels know that they are in no position to take the Lobos lightly.

New Mexico will be without first-year head coach Mike Locksley, who is under a 10-day suspension without pay following an alleged altercation with an assistant.

To boot, the Lobos' best defensive player — safety Ian Clark — is hurt and out for the season, and they could be springing a minor surprise on the Rebels by handing the keys to the offense over to redshirt freshman B.R. Holbrook, who has attempted 23 passes in two appearances this season.

However, UNLV heads to Albuquerque as the sole owner of the nation's longest road losing streak in conference games, with a 30-27 loss to Wyoming last month serving as No. 20.

"They've played good teams," Sanford said, referring to New Mexico's schedule so far, which has included Tulsa, Air Force and Texas Tech. "It's hard for me to tell since I'm not in the middle of it, and I don't know all the facts (behind the Lobos' struggles). It can go one of two ways. They can either rally up or go the other way.

"We're going to expect them to rally up."

Injury updates

The aforementioned Anthony is questionable for Saturday's contest, as he's still battling lingering soreness from a sprained ankle suffered against BYU two weeks ago.

As for the guy who throws Anthony and others the ball, junior quarterback Omar Clayton, Sanford said that his struggling starter is still not back to 100 percent after aggravating his knee and throwing shoulder earlier this season. But, still, he's good enough to man the UNLV offense.

"I would say that during the course of this year, he's fought a lot of things," Sanford said. "The shoulder and the knee, I think he's starting to get a little better. He's not 100 percent, but he's starting to get a little better."

Clayton, who only threw four interceptions in nine starts as a sophomore, has eight touchdown passes and nine picks so far this year.

Elsewhere, decisions will also made later in the week on junior linebackers Starr Fuimaono and Ronnie Paulo.

Fuimaono, UNLV's third-leading tackler this season, played last weekend on a sore ankle, while Paulo tried to warm up despite a lingering shoulder issue, but was in too much pain to go.

Expected back is sophomore tight end Kyle Watkins, who was out last Saturday with an ankle sprain.

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