David A. Cleveland / Special to the Sun
Monday, Sept. 21, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Now that one of the toughest opening three-game stretches in UNLV football history is behind them, it’s time for the Rebels to have some fun. Three weeks of parsing through numbers and film for positives is over, because with Idaho State and a historically bad Mountain West awaiting them even the winless Rebels have a shot to make something happen the rest of the way.
That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. UNLV has lost far too many winnable games over the years to make anyone feel comfortable, and when you throw a first-year, first-time Division I coach into the mix uncertainty is a guarantee.
But how could anyone look at the rest of the league and its 2-21 record against Division I teams and not think that the over on UNLV’s season win total (2.5) is entirely possible, if not probable. That has to start with one, though, so the most important question right now is…
UNLV is going to beat Idaho State this weekend, right? The Bengals (1-2) are coming off a 52-0 loss at Boise State and their lone win is against a Division II school.
In the Big Sky Conference preseason polls, the media had Idaho State third while the coaches put them sixth. Running backs Xavier Finney and Jakori Ford lead the offense while Idaho State breaks in a new quarterback, and as the Boise score and a 20-point home loss to Portland State suggest the defense is a work in progress.
However, there are recent examples of middling and downright bad D-IAA teams coming in and winning or at least giving UNLV a scare. Last year UNLV started great and then quarterback Blake Decker got hurt and it held on for life in a 13-12 win against Northern Colorado. In 2011-12 the Rebels got bludgeoned by Southern Utah and then lost on a field goal to a bad Northern Arizona squad.
The biggest non-coaching difference between those games and this one, and the reason to believe UNLV is going to be OK, is…
The defense looks legitimately good. The opponents’ size and speed, especially the last two weeks, have been too much to overcome, but so too has a UNLV offense that keeps putting its defense in tough spots on the field or barely gives them time to rest.
The Rebels aren’t deep enough to battle through that and the results are ugly numbers. There are other numbers, though, like UNLV’s seven fourth-down stops and several run-stuffing third-down stops in short yardage situations.
That starts with penetration up front but the biggest revelation so far this year has been UNLV’s secondary. Based on recent history I’m worried that a regression is ahead though it’s just as possible that safeties Blake Richmond and Peni Vea will continue to play like the seniors they are.
It was Richmond’s tip against Michigan that led to an interception for cornerback Fred Wilson, who also had a great open-field tackle on Saturday, and we haven’t even seen the best from senior defensive end Sonny Sanitoa yet.
There’s a lot of experience on that side of the ball, and it’s about to get better for both lines as sophomore defensive tackle Jeremiah Valoaga (injury) and offensive lineman Nick Gstrein (academics) are set to return this week. The team’s overall health has been good and they’re adding more pieces, but that won’t matter as much unless…
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.
Decker starts improving, or at least stops regressing. It’s tough to get a read on UNLV’s senior signal-caller through three games because he’s played only a little more than two games and only Decker knows how healthy he really was at The Big House.
Decker seemed to move around fine but both of his interceptions were bad throws that gave the defender a better shot than the receiver. Bad decisions, bad throws or passes he couldn’t get everything behind?
The answer matters, because almost anything seems possible in this league as long as you don’t turn the ball over. UNLV’s defense has been good enough to beat a lot of the teams the Rebels will face the rest of the way and the offense simply hasn’t.
This always seemed like a huge four-game stretch for UNLV — Idaho State, at UNR, San Jose State, at Fresno State — and the starts from San Diego State, which just lost at home to South Alabama, and Wyoming, which has two bad home losses, now make those season-ending games seem just as attainable. But only if the Rebels can rely on their quarterback to, at the very least, not make things worse.
I saw enough from Decker throughout the offseason that, assuming he’s healthy, I think he’s going to rise a bit as the competition level falls. Don't forget, Decker will likely end up as a top-10 career passing yardage leader, mayhaps as high as fourth, in UNLV history in just two seasons, and yes I'm aware that says as much or more about UNLV's history as it does Decker.
Two years ago the Rebels went to a bowl game mostly by defeating the teams they were supposed to beat. This year’s squad should be able to get to at least three wins the same way.