Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2016 | 2 a.m.
The Rebels are 1-0 in Mountain West play and this week they head to San Diego State as 14-point underdogs. Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer and reporters Case Keefer and Taylor Bern discuss their expectations for freshman quarterback Dalton Sneed's second start and how the nation's No. 9 rushing offense will do against the No. 14 rushing defense.
UNLV defensive tackle Mike Hughes Jr. tapped the table a few times, a gentle knock on (probably) wood to remind senior center Will Kreitler not to tempt fate. The offensive line has been the foundation of this UNLV team in part because they’ve been healthy, something that can’t be said of the rest of the offense.
The Rebels are down another receiver as coach Tony Sanchez on Tuesday confirmed that redshirt freshman Darren Woods Jr. is done for the season with a knee injury he suffered in the second quarter of Saturday’s 45-20 victory against Fresno State. Woods joins Kendal Keys (knee) and Brandon Presley (foot) on the shelf with only Presley harboring a chance to return this year, though that might not happen.
It was also injuries to Kurt Palandech and Johnny Stanton that pushed redshirt freshman Dalton Sneed up to second string and then starting quarterback. Viewed through that light, though, injuries are also opportunities for the next guy to step up, which is exactly what Sneed did with a highlight play and relatively error-free debut.
“We’re hurting at the wide receiver position, we’re hurting at the quarterback position, but the guys have stepped in and done a nice job,” Kreitler said at UNLV’s weekly news conference. “The offensive line, we haven’t been banged up, we’re fortunate, so we’re just trying to lead these guys right now.”
*knock knock knock*
The Rebels (2-3, 1-0) have faith in their depth but they’re hoping they don’t have to test it this week in a trip to San Diego State (3-1, 0-0), the defending Mountain West champs who are coming off a 42-24 loss at South Alabama. The game kicks off at 7:32 p.m. in Qualcomm Stadium and will air on ESPNU.
Over the last two weeks, four different Rebels have rushed for at least 100 yards in a game, showing that it’s been a total team effort for the guys who are now ranked No. 9 in the country in rushing (273 yards per game). Throw in that UNLV ranks second in the country with only two sacks allowed and it’s clear how important the offensive line has been and will continue to be for the Rebels.
But Saturday’s game, at least on paper, will be their toughest test so far. Kreitler downplayed the idea, saying UCLA and Central Michigan had tough defensive lines, but none were as great at stopping UNLV’s strength as the Aztecs.
San Diego State ranks 14th in the country in rushing defense, allowing only 99.3 yards per game. Some of that, certainly, is based on competition but it’s clear that the trench battles will be key.
It’s possible that could open up the game to be decided by one or two big plays through the air. San Diego State will surely test a UNLV defense that over the last three weeks has allowed 14 passing plays of at least 20 yards, plus several pass interference penalties. And Sanchez expects SDSU’s defense to stack the box often to try to shutdown UNLV’s run game and test Sneed in his second start.
“They’re going to leave their guys on islands at times and bring a lot of pressure, that’s just who they are,” Sanchez said.
At the center of it all will be Kreitler and the offensive line, left tackle Kyle Saxelid, left guard Michael Chevalier, right guard Justin Polu and right tackle Nathan Jacobson. Kreitler is quick to credit the skill players behind him but it’s the blocks that create the highlights and keep the quarterback off the ground.
“It’s fun to block for those guys. If you give them a bit of a hole, they’ll find their way,” Kreitler said. “Those big, long touchdown runs help those stats look really good.”
They sure do, and moving forward the Rebels expect even more of them paved by a healthy *knock on wood* offensive line.
• Woods’ injury leaves UNLV with only three scholarship receivers: junior Devonte Boyd and true freshmen Mekhi Stevenson and Elijah Trosclair. Sanchez must look around for solutions, but he doesn’t anticipate moving any of the running backs out wide.
“Our backs are not natural receivers,” Sanchez said.
One possibility is some receiver reps for tight end Tim Holt, though Sanchez said Holt is dealing with a day-to-day injury. Senior tight end Andrew Price could also be moved out there for a big target — he’s listed at 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds — but the bottom line is that it’s something UNLV will have to figure out as it goes.
• Sometimes this simplest answer is the correct one. When asked what the key difference was in Saturday’s victory, Sanchez noted, among other things, that the offense avoided the early interceptions that had recently put them in holes.
“We didn’t turn the ball over for the first time in three weeks, and we won for the first time in three weeks,” Sanchez said.
In fact, it was UNLV’s first game all season without a turnover, something they did three times last season. There’s a degree of luck in turnovers — the Rebels recovered two of their own fumbles on Saturday — but in limited throws Sneed didn’t put many in danger, and that will need to continue as UNLV opens the playbook for him.