David A. Cleveland / Special to the Sun
Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015 | 3:33 p.m.
At 0-3, the Rebels are right where nearly everyone outside their own locker room expected them to be. No one knows what’s going to happen next, so for UNLV a picture-perfect Saturday afternoon at The Big House is less about a 28-7 loss to Michigan than what elements therein suggest success or failure in the ensuing nine games.
Of course, that’s a conversation best had out of the Rebels’ earshot. First-year coach Tony Sanchez lost three games over the past three years at Bishop Gorman High, and parsing 60 minutes for small victories doesn’t interest him when the scoreboard favors the opponent.
“I hate losing more than I enjoy winning,” Sanchez said. “That’s why I’ve had so much success in my career, and that’s why I’m the head coach at UNLV. We’re going to win a bunch of games, but it’s frustrating right now.”
Senior tight end Jake Phillips sat at the postgame news conference after the offense struggled to get the ball across midfield until the second half, and his mean mug told the story. That or his arms, which sport a wicked farmer’s tan earned in the hours spent in shoulder pads under the glaring Las Vegas sun.
“We’re upset,” he said. “… We didn’t come here to stay in the game or survive. We came to win the game, and I feel like we had a chance.”
Following a week of speculation about his status because of a non-contact injury against UCLA, senior quarterback Blake Decker started the game and played 11 of UNLV’s 13 series. Decker said he started to feel better Wednesday, and by Thursday the coaching staff felt that, barring any setbacks, Decker would be good to go.
“The way he went down on Saturday, you would think he would be out for months,” Sanchez said. “Then all of a sudden, and we didn’t want to push him, but we watched him a little bit and all of a sudden he’s running around. It’s one of those crazy deals. We didn’t expect it.”
Decker made a heads-up play to avoid a sack and pick up UNLV’s first first down, but an interception on the next play ended any chance at a good start. It didn’t look any better until the fourth quarter, as Michigan scored off Decker’s two interceptions and the inability to get any kind of passing game made the Rebels one-dimensional.
Removing the 53-yard pass to Devonte Boyd that set up UNLV’s lone score, Decker and sophomore Kurt Palandech went a combined 15-of-25 passing for 90 yards. Conversely, if you take out Michigan running back Ty Isaac’s great gallop for a 76-yard score, the Wolverines’ rushing average drops to 4.7 yards per attempt, which is still very good but tells a much different story than the box score’s 6.5.
“We held our own,” said sophomore defensive tackle Mike Hughes Jr., who had a big third-down stop among his five tackles.
The defense, particularly guys such as Hughes and senior safeties Blake Richmond and Peni Vea, have carried water for the better part of three games for an offense that keeps putting them in bad situations. Michigan’s average starting field position in the first quarter was the 50-yard line, something that continues to be a problem and contributed directly to a quick 14-0 lead that UNLV never realistically challenged.
“I feel like the offense is going to get there,” Hughes said. “Defense, we just have to do our job and worry about our part.”
Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer and writers Case Keefer and Taylor Bern discuss UNLV's situation at quarterback after Blake Decker went down in the Rebels' loss to UCLA.
The Rebels go home with an extra $1 million for their trouble courtesy of a Michigan (2-1) bank account that could seemingly cover that from merchandise alone. Storm clouds mostly gave way before kickoff and 108,683 people — a record crowd for a UNLV game — filled the concourse, seats and stores with lines out the door.
It’s a massive undertaking trying to mold a winner out of a perennial loser, and given the size, speed and depth disadvantages over the past three weeks, it would be silly to expect that to start before next week’s home game against Idaho State. Even Sanchez conceded some satisfaction in small wins.
“It’s one of the tougher schedules we’ve ever taken on and nobody pushed us over,” Sanchez said. “We fought the entire time. I’m proud of the fact that we fought and we forced people into the fourth quarter.”
That won’t be good enough when the schedule lightens up, and considering the Mountain West’s struggles this year, that basically includes the remaining slate. Only the Halloween home date with Boise State still stands above the rest, and even that’s debatable.
UNLV certainly won’t run the table, as Decker suggested they would after Saturday’s game, but there’s a considerable weight lifted moving forward. The Rebels’ defense, which in recent history was the unit preventing victories, has played well enough to win against lesser foes, and the entire team keeps fighting until the end.
That’s not a win, but for now it’s something, and because it’s been a consistency through three games, it can eventually be something that helps in a victory.
“We’ve got some scrappers. We’ve got some kids that want to fight,” Decker said. “… We’re looking at our schedule the rest of the way out with opportunities to win every game.”