Saturday, Oct. 22, 2016 | 8:05 p.m.
Maybe, just maybe, things could have played out differently if UNLV had kept its offense on the field for a fourth-and-1 attempt on its opening drive. That’s not second-guessing the decision, which at the time was reasonable, but when surveying the wreckage of UNLV’s 42-23 home loss to Colorado State today you have to go back nearly to the beginning to find any routes that might have averted disaster.
The only meaningful Rebels drive that crossed into Rams territory was their first one, which ended with sophomore Evan Pantels missing his first field goal of the season on his longest attempt (41 yards). Short-yardage specialist David Greene was stuffed on third-and-1, and already trailing 7-0, the Rebels decided to kick.
CSU capitalized on the miss with another touchdown, and UNLV’s next five drives looked like this: interception, punt, punt, fumble, kickoff return to end the half.
So, yeah, maybe keeping the ball and potentially scoring early in the game could have led to something dramatically different, but most likely it would have had little impact because from the start of the game the Rams (4-4, 2-2) made clear they were the best team on the field.
“Just own it,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said, “we got our butt kicked today.”
UNLV (3-5, 2-2) did enough in the second half at Sam Boyd Stadium to make some of the numbers look respectable, but the outcome was decided by the time the marching band was in position to take the field for halftime. Colorado State was already up 28-0 when a Lexington Thomasdrop on a backward pass handed the Rams a free possession in the final two minutes to bump it up to 35-0. They also controlled the ball more than twice as long as UNLV (20:54 to 9:06).
“We came out flat, we didn’t come out fired up and they completely took advantage of us, just drove down on us and kicked our butts the first half,” said senior safety Troy Hawthorne.
The language was certainly more colorful than “butt” on the sideline and in the locker room, especially early as Sanchez and the coaching staff attempted to do anything they could to pull UNLV out of its malaise. Coming off a dramatic victory at Hawaii, the Rebels’ defense didn’t have an answer for CSU’s offensive line pushing it around, while the offense had too many errors to accomplish much of anything.
“We didn’t look like we had much energy in the first half,” Sanchez said. “There’s only so much yelling and screaming and motivating you can do.”
There could be myriad reasons for the letdown, including the fact that UNLV was coming off of back-to-back road games. Immaturity was one of Sanchez’s suggestions, an idea he doubled down on for the performance of redshirt freshman quarterback Dalton Sneed.
"He's young," Sanchez said. "At the end of the day it's one of those deals where you're still growing, still maturing, still figuring things out."
After completing 19-of-27 passes for 279 yards at Hawaii, Sneed’s first half here resembled the entire ugly game he had two weeks ago at San Diego State, when the Rebels finished with only 9 passing yards. Sneed went 1-of-8 for 14 yards in the first half — he finished 7-of-23 with 185 yards and two scores — and Sanchez said his confidence in the QB hasn’t wavered because many mistakes were errors of youth.
Sanchez said he felt Sneed was dropping his eyes and focusing too much on the pass rush rather than keeping them downfield, and that led to many of the off-target passes. And when you have a freshman at the most important position, the ebbs and flows can be part of the deal, even if it’s especially frustrating for the guy behind center.
“Nobody wants to go on the roller coaster winning one game, losing one, winning one, losing one,” Sneed said. “… This sucks; we’re going to learn from it.”
There were few, if any, positives to take from the game, but moving forward the Rebels need only look to their bounce back at Hawaii for inspiration at how to respond from this setback. Next week they go to San Jose State, which has lost to New Mexico, Hawaii and San Diego State with only a 14-10 victory against UNR in the win column.
UNLV has looked awfully bad at times this season, and especially in this game, but the Mountain West offers many shots at redemption, and the Rebels get another one next week.
“It’s not any bigger than one game,” Sanchez said. “We’ve just got to go back to the drawing board, we’ve got to focus and we’ve got to get ready to go fight at San Jose and get that fourth win.”