Thursday, Aug. 30, 2018 | 2 a.m.
UNLV will enter Saturday’s season opener against No. 15 USC as a three-touchdown underdog (at least), but star running back Lexington Thomas believes it won’t take long for the Rebels to prove they belong.
One of the focal points for the offense in practice this week has been starting quickly. The Rebels don’t want to find themselves in an early hole and forced to play from behind, so controlling the ball until the game stabilizes is a major key.
Thomas said the coaching staff has boiled down that idea into one early goal: Pick up a first down on the opening drive.
“Finishing and starting and getting that first first down, that’s what we’ve been focusing on in practice," Thomas said after Wednesday's morning session at Rebel Park. "That’s something we struggled with last year, but we’ve been getting better every day at getting the [first] first down and starting games.
“If we go out there and we get the first first down, we keep moving the ball,” he continued. “It’s going to let those guys know we came to fight, we didn’t come to lay down.”
Leaning on the run game seems like a sound plan for UNLV. The Rebels were one of the country’s best rushing offenses last year (5.3 yards per rush, 18th in the nation), while USC showed some vulnerability when it came to defending the run. USC ranked 66th nationally, allowing 4.4 yards per rush in 2017. Advanced statistics were even less kind to the Trojans’ run defense, as USC ranked 113th nationally in stuff rate (tackles at or behind the line of scrimmage on run plays).
A Week 1 setting, as USC attempts to work out the kinks while integrating some younger players into the front seven, could be a chance for UNLV’s powerful ground game to gain traction.
Thomas said if UNLV can manage to get that early first down and run successfully throughout the game, it will make things easier for quarterback Armani Rogers and the rest of the offense.
“It gives us confidence and makes the passing game easier,” Thomas said. “It makes Armani more comfortable and it lets the receivers get more comfortable. It gets them more one-on-one coverage instead of them running zones and clouds and stuff. It makes it more balanced for us.”
UNLV recorded 254 first downs last year, including 142 via the run (55.9 percent). On Saturday, the Rebels are putting particular emphasis on getting the first one and building momentum from there.
“It’s very important,” Thomas said. “One of our focal points is running the ball. Everyone knows we’re a pound-the-ball team. We have to get that done.”