Published Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Updated Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017 | 10:59 p.m.
UNLV football honored victims and heroes from Sunday’s mass shooting tragedy in an on-field ceremony before Saturday’s game against San Diego State at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Players from both teams entered the field accompanied by local police, medical professionals and other first responders. Fifty-eight white balloons were released, one for each life lost in the shooting.
Singer Kaya Jones, who grew up in Las Vegas and performed at the Route 91 festival on Sunday before the shooting occurred, then took the field to sing “God Bless America.”
The stadium then observed a moment of silence before a 100-yard American flag was unfurled across the field. UNLV student Janeen Phelps sang the national anthem.
Parts of the ceremony were televised nationwide by ESPN2, which also broadcast the game.
Managing emotion among keys for UNLV football against San Diego State
This week has undoubtedly been a difficult one for UNLV football. With more than 20 players on the roster who count Las Vegas as their hometown — and many more who have developed deep ties to the community during their time here — game week has taken on a subdued, somber tone for the Rebels in the aftermath of Sunday’s mass shooting tragedy.
Set against that backdrop, Saturday’s home game against San Diego State (7:45 p.m., ESPN2) seems less than significant. A pregame ceremony set to honor the victims and heroes will only heighten the emotion for both teams, and whatever happens after the opening kickoff will be anyone’s guess.
Under ordinary circumstances, a home game against the undefeated league favorite would be an exciting matchup, so let’s try to break down what UNLV will have to do in order to have a chance at victory:
Tony Sanchez said early in the week that while he appreciated how deeply his players empathized with victims and the people who lost loved ones on Sunday, he didn’t want his team to be emotionally drained by the time the game kicks off. Whether or not the Rebels can accomplish that is unknown — there isn’t really a coaching manual for how to handle something like this.
Expect UNLV to come out with high energy, flying around the field on both sides of the ball. But it will also be imperative for the Rebels to pace themselves for a full 60-minute contest against a physical team. San Diego State has worn opponents down this season, as evidenced by the Aztecs’ 53.5 percent time-of-possession advantage in the second half of games.
In last year’s meeting between these teams, San Diego State's defense won the battle up front, holding UNLV to 3.1 yards per carry. Star running back Lexington Thomas had nowhere to run and posted one of his worst showings in a UNLV uniform, registering 27 yards on nine carries.
If Thomas is bottled up like that again on Saturday, this won’t be much of a contest. The shifty junior is the Rebels’ most explosive offensive weapon (571 rushing yards, 8.4 yards per carry, nine touchdowns) and as he showed with his strong performance against Ohio State two weeks ago, he’s capable of producing against tough defenses — if he has room to operate.
Like last year, San Diego State is strong against the run (No. 42 in the nation at 3.8 yards per carry allowed), but UNLV’s offensive line should be up to the challenge. Through five games, the Rebels rank in the top 10 nationally in yards per carry (6.1) and rushing percentage (71 percent of UNLV’s plays have been runs). So the offensive line will have to find a way to open some creases for Thomas. If they can’t generate yards on the ground and UNLV is forced to throw in predictable situations, the Rebels don’t stand much of a chance.
UNLV is going to see a lot of Rashad Penny on Saturday. The San Diego State senior running back is the most productive offensive weapon in the Mountain West (823 rushing yards, 130 receiving yards through five games), and SDSU’s attack is based around his skill set. He’s going to get his yards and make his share of plays with the ball in his hands.
What UNLV can’t let him do is impact the game on special teams as well. Penny also serves as a part-time kick returner for the Aztecs, and when they call his number, he eats up yardage. His five returns this season have gone for an average of 40.6 yards, including a 99-yard touchdown runback in Week 2.
Sanchez said special teams are a focus this week, and that the Rebels may vary their kickoffs and kick coverage in order to mitigate Penny’s impact in the return game.
“You watch them on film, they’re pretty scary,” Sanchez said. “We’re talking about doing a couple different things, and we’re working a couple different kickoffs. We’ve got to do a great job on that. The worst thing in the world would be to go ahead and kick the ball right to him and have them be able to set up a return how they want. They’re really good. They’re probably one of the better teams in the country at it.”
Keeping Penny under wraps on offense is difficult enough; not allowing him to run amok on special teams as well will be the No. 1 priority.