David A. Cleveland / Special to the Sun
Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2015 | 2 a.m.
Now that UNLV is through the toughest part of its schedule — and made it here relatively healthy — the Rebels will have a chance to build on some of the positives we've seen thus far. Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer and reporters Case Keefer and Taylor Bern discuss what to expect from the Rebels moving forward.
The Rebels’ most difficult stretch of the season is behind them and arguably the easiest starts Saturday at home against Idaho State.
UNLV (0-3) kicks off against the Bengals (1-2) at 6:05 p.m. in Sam Boyd Stadium. The game will stream on unlvrebels.com.
On Tuesday, UNLV coach Tony Sanchez held his weekly press conference on campus at Lied Athletic Complex and he started by emphasizing that the Rebels aren’t in a position to overlook any opponent, especially considering recent history against Division I-AA foes …
• “Let’s face it, UNLV has struggled with this game in the past.”
Yes, like last year. And the year before that. And two years before that.
Over the last four seasons against Division I-AA opponents, UNLV is 2-2 and has outscored its opponents by a mere 81-77. The only comfortable game was during the bowl year against Western Illinois.
Those results contribute directly to the Rebels’ mentality entering this game …
• “They’re not going to give it away. We have to go out there and earn it.”
Senior quarterback Blake Decker said in July that he tore the bursa sack in his throwing shoulder early in last year’s one-point victory against Northern Colorado. That contributed to the team’s struggles in that game and it was one of many issues Decker would have to deal with throughout the season.
On Saturday the Rebels need Decker to step up and control the ball as he will face his former backup at Scottsdale Community College in Idaho State junior quarterback Michael Sanders. After Decker left, Sanders took over at the junior college and duplicated Decker’s efforts by leading the league in passing yardage and passing touchdowns before moving on to the Bengals.
Even if Sanders piles up some yardage, though, Sanchez won’t care too much as long as UNLV’s defense is strong in three areas …
• “Yardage isn’t really a big concern. It really comes down to third down conversions, it comes down to red zone defense and it comes down to making some big plays and creating turnovers.”
The Rebels are giving up 482.7 yards per game, which ranks last in the league and 111th in the country. As he said, Sanchez doesn’t care much about that number, but one he really wants to see improve is the 44.4 percent conversion rate of opponents on third down.
UNLV has made some good stops but that still only ranks 10th in the league and 104th in the country. The four interceptions gained are right in line with the big plays that Sanchez wants to see, though so far those have been offset by UNLV’s four interceptions thrown.
Which brings back the passing game …
• “We’re going to continue to run the football, we’re going to stay committed to that, but we have to make some plays in the passing game to take some pressure off.”
UNLV struggled to move the ball past the 50-yard line against Michigan and its scoring offense ranks second to last in the country with 13.3 points per game. Obviously much of that has to do with the opponents and Decker’s injury against UCLA, but that doesn’t completely calm concerns.
Sanchez wants to be a power running football team and that simply hasn’t been possible against some big, loaded lines …
• “We’ve been a little bit outmanned up front and I think it’s been very evident the last couple of weeks.”
Michigan’s offensive line dwarfed UNLV’s defense by an average of 45 pounds and even the Wolverines’ defensive line was bigger than UNLV’s offense by 11.5 pounds. There wasn’t anything the Rebels could do about the size disadvantage and they weren’t able to overcome that with technique.
Opponents are going to get smaller, which will help, and the Rebels are also going to get bigger and deeper. Junior defensive end Jeremiah Valoaga is back from injury this week and senior offensive lineman Nick Gstrein, who missed most of spring practice, is done serving a three-game suspension for academic issues.
Gstrein has 14 career starts at right guard, though his immediate role on the line is unclear …
• “We need some help up front so he’ll come on in and we’ll see. We haven’t given him the nod yet as a starter but he’ll play half the game and may very well start.”
Gstrein is expected to split time with sophomore Chris Lopez. The Rebels haven’t been able to have much of a rotation along the offensive line so if nothing else this will help keep guys fresher.
The Mountain West has never seemed more vulnerable as a league. But to go into league play and start challenging for anything, the Rebels first must give themselves the taste of victory.
• “Once they taste it they’re not going to want to let it go. It’s a helluva sweet taste.”