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Rebels looking to rediscover defensive swagger at San Jose State

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Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau

UNLV Rebels linebacker Gabe McCoy (25) and defensive back Dalton Baker (33) force UTEP Miners quarterback Kai Locksley to fumble during their NCAA football game Saturday, September 8, 2018, at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas.

Three short weeks ago, UNLV had the look of a bowl team.

Despite dropping a close road game at Arkansas State to wrap up the non-conference schedule with a 2-2 record, the Rebels were confidently on the postseason track. Lexington Thomas was stalking the all-time school rushing record, Armani Rogers was setting touchdown records, and most importantly, the defense was entirely unrecognizable — in a good way.

Then came the team’s bye week, followed by three straight losses to Mountain West opponents. Now Rogers is out with a foot injury, the running game has slowed down, and, most importantly, the defense of the last three weeks has been all too familiar.

The Rebels have given up a staggering 150 points in the three most recent defeats, including last weeks’ 41-35 home loss to Air Force. The defense has allowed 557.3 yards per contest during that span.

If UNLV is going to entertain any thought of a season-saving rally, it will have to start on the defensive side of the ball, and it will have to start on Saturday, when the Rebels travel for a winnable game at San Jose State.

Head coach Tony Sanchez said the Rebels’ confidence has taken a hit during the losing streak and that San Jose State represents a chance to right the ship.

“Right now, this is a big huge game for us,” Sanchez said. “We’ve got to get some swagger back. Got to play good football. I know the defensive guys are chomping at the bit to get out there and to play well.”

If the defense wants to rediscover its early-season swagger, they’ll have to find a way to get into the offensive backfield. Through the first four weeks under new coordinator Tim Skipper, the Rebels’ defense was surprisingly good at putting pressure on opposing passers. Heading into the bye week, UNLV had a sack rate of 7.86 percent, which was the 30th best in the nation; in the last three games, the Rebels have failed to record a single sack on 63 pass attempts.

With opposing quarterbacks able to sit comfortably in the pocket for long periods of time, the UNLV secondary has been exposed. The last three opponents have passed for 844 yards on 19.2 yards per completion (and two of those opponents were option-heavy New Mexico and Air Force).

The good news for the Rebels is that San Jose State should be a bit easier to defend. The Spartans average a paltry 21.0 points per game, and their more traditional dropback passing scheme should give UNLV an opportunity to get back in the pass-rushing groove. San Jose State has allowed sacks on more than 10 percent of their passing attempts, which ranks 119th in the nation.

Sanchez wants to see the Rebels attack the backfield like they did earlier in the season, when the defense was working.

“I think having a defense that can be more aggressive, you’re going to see more blitz schemes, more movements going against a traditional offense. I think it’s going to get our guys going a little bit.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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