Tom R. Smedes / Assocaited Press
Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018 | 2 a.m.
UNLV went into last year’s season opener against Howard as a 45-point favorite, and we know how that turned out.
Ray Brewer, Mike Grimala and Case Keefer break down UNLV football heading into its first game of the season, at USC on Saturday.
The Rebels will experience a role reversal in Saturday’s 2018 opener, as they’ll be considered massive underdogs at No. 15 USC. The question is, can UNLV do what Howard did and pull off a shocking upset on the road?
Things will have to go perfectly for the Rebels — strong production from the running game, explosive plays from quarterback Armani Rogers and some fortune in the turnover column — but they’ll especially need a superlative showing from the defense.
Lining up against the vaunted USC offense in Week 1 will probably be the biggest test all season for a UNLV defense that allowed 31.8 points per game last year (93rd out of 130 teams in Division I) and 6.3 yards per play (111th). But there may be reason for optimism.
After a prolonged training-camp battle, USC coach Clay Helton named true freshman J.T. Daniels the team’s starting quarterback over the weekend. Daniels, who graduated from Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.) a year early to enroll at USC, comes with a ton of hype as a 5-star recruit and a potential top draft pick down the road.
The bad news is that the UNLV coaching staff has limited game tape with which to study Daniels’ tendencies. The good news is that the Rebels will get to face him in his first career game.
During Monday’s press conference, it sounded like the Rebels plan to make Daniels the centerpiece of their game plan.
“It will be interesting to see how they use him,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said. “Are they just going to go ahead and run their stuff and throw the ball around the yard, or are they going to try to protect him a little bit and run the football? That will be interesting to see, chess match-wise, how they try to get him going. He’s a great player, that’s why he’s at USC and was one of the top recruited players in the country, but he is a freshman and it is college football, so the game is going to be a little bit faster.”
Junior linebacker Gabe McCoy said the Rebels don’t want Daniels to feel too comfortable in his first game.
“Our job is, he’s a freshman quarterback in his first year, just put some pressure on him and make him feel uncomfortable,” McCoy said. “He’s a supremely good athlete, but I think overall we’ve just got to make him feel uncomfortable and do our job as a defense.”
McCoy said the defense can get Daniels out of his comfort zone the same way you get any quarterback out of his comfort zone — with a combination of pass-rush pressure and good coverage in the secondary.
“Sacking him, getting pressure on him, getting hits on him, giving him different types of looks,” McCoy said. “Pressure, showing different types of blitzes, moving safeties, stuff like that.”
Pressuring quarterbacks was not a strength of the 2017 UNLV defense. The Rebels ranked among the worst in the country in sack rate at 3.3 percent (123rd nationally), and three players tied for the team lead with just 2.0 sacks (including the since-graduated Mike Hughes, and defensive end Nick Dehdashtian, who is out for the season with a foot injury).
USC lost three starters along the offensive line, so if there is a good time to disrupt the Trojans’ still-developing passing game, Week 1 is probably the best bet.
“I think anytime you’re playing one of those big opponents, anytime you’re an underdog, you’d like to play those games right off the bat,” Sanchez said. “They’re a talented roster, they’ve got a lot of guys that can be Sunday players on their team, but you’ve got a freshman quarterback. You’ve got to move him off his spot and make sure he’s not just throwing to his first progression. You’ve got to make him go through those situations. With a young guy, in a couple weeks he’s going to a little bit more of a veteran. He’ll be seeing things a bit more, with more game experience. That doesn’t mean he’s not going to come and play lights-out [in Week 1]. It’s our job to try and defend against that. But I think Week 1 is when you want to play those big-time opponents.”