David A. Cleveland / Special to the Sun
Friday, Sept. 25, 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.
This week is a unique combination of excitement and nervousness for those following UNLV football. A Division I-AA opponent coming to town means a great chance to secure victory No. 1 this season and get some confidence heading into Reno the following week, but a loss or even a shaky win could have the opposite effect.
And no one is quite sure what to expect Saturday.
UNLV (0-3) kicks off against Idaho State (1-2) at 6:05 p.m. at Sam Boyd Stadium. The game will stream on unlvrebels.com via the Mountain West Network.
Idaho State is coming off a 52-0 loss at Boise State and lost at home by 20 to Big Sky opponent Portland State. All of that should add up to UNLV coach Tony Sanchez’s first collegiate victory but recent Rebels performances in this spot make it feel like anything but a sure thing:
1. Lower Division Woes
UNLV didn’t always have so much trouble with Division I-AA opponents. The two-win squad in 2006 handled Idaho State 54-10 in the programs’ most recent meeting, and yet more recent two-win UNLV teams haven’t had any such luck.
Last year was a one-point victory against Northern Colorado, and two of the three years before that it was a loss.
It goes to show where the program is at, but honestly a convincing victory against Idaho State could go a long way in terms of perception and the players’ confidence out on the field.
2. Fighting Artichokes Reunion
“Honestly, he’s probably the nicest kid I’ve ever met in my life.”
That’s UNLV’s starting quarterback talking about Idaho State’s starting quarterback. Blake Decker knows this because two years ago while he was throwing for 4,241 yards and 47 touchdowns at Scottsdale Community College, the Bengals’ Michael Sanders was his backup. When Sanders took over last season he threw for 3,535 yards and 35 touchdowns.
Decker said Sanders, who has completed 57 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and three interceptions through three games, is looking to stay in the pocket and pick apart secondaries. They only played together one season but they’ve kept in touch and talked about facing each other Saturday.
“We were really good friends,” Decker said. “We taught each other a lot of things.”
They’ll probably catch up on the field before the game. But what Decker is not going to do before kickoff is tell UNLV’s defense what a swell guy the opposing quarterback is.
“We’re going to keep that off the books until after the game,” Decker said.
3. Ground Gains
UNLV’s offense has mostly sputtered out of the gates this season. Decker’s injury and the competition level are obvious factors in that start, but those don’t seem to be an issue this weekend so there aren’t any excuses.
This is the time to start finding out what the Rebels’ offense could look like this season, and Sanchez still wants that to start with the running game. Here’s how the carries and yards per carry have broken down in the three games so far for UNLV’s running backs:
Keith Whitely: 21, 3.2 • 12, 5.6 • 13, 2.2
Lexington Thomas: 5, 2.6 • 5, 1.8 • 5, 0.6
Xzaviar Campbell: 1, 5 • 8, 7.1 • 6, 2.2
The true freshmen will be given a chance to continue to get more carries as the year goes on. By the bye week there will likely be a more clear hierarchy in the backfield.
4. Brotherly Love
UNLV’s Fred Wilson was in a boot on Wednesday and Idaho State’s Fondereaux Wilson has yet to play, but if they both see the field on Saturday it would be a first for the brothers from Bakersfield, Calif.
“We’ve never played against each other before,” said Fred Wilson, a senior starting cornerback.
Fred Wilson was day-to-day because of a foot injury but optimistic that he would be able to start and play in front of the family and friends he has coming to town. After getting his first interception in nearly three years last week, Wilson wants to be out there as part of a defense that believes it’s rounding into form.
“We’re at a point where we should be very crisp,” he said.
Fondereaux Wilson is a sophomore receiver at Idaho State. If he does see his first action against UNLV, big brother isn’t going to go easy on him.
“If they let him in and I’m in there, I hope to guard him and I’ll see what I can do on him,” Fred Wilson said. “Hopefully my mom doesn’t get mad.”
5. Familiar Voice
Former Rebel quarterback Caleb Herring is back in the booth this weekend to provide analysis alongside play-by-play man Tony Cordasco for the online stream at unlvrebels.com.
This is one of three straight games available only on an online streaming service, and considering the lack of actual TV coverage is one of Rebel fans’ biggest annual complaints that’s obviously not a good thing. The bright spot is it’s a unique opportunity to get insight from someone who played with many guys on the current roster, and when done well that’s great commentary.
The concern is if a guy would be afraid to be at all critical, but reports on that front from Herring’s debut last season indicate that shouldn’t be a problem.