Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau
Thursday, Oct. 25, 2018 | 2 a.m.
When Armani Rogers went down with a foot injury a month ago, it was a given that the UNLV offense would have to adapt its style of play. But the Rebels have pulled a complete 180 in the past three games, becoming a pass-first team that now relies on sophomore backup quarterback Max Gilliam to drive the offense.
The power QB keepers that were the staple of the offense under Rogers have been eliminated in favor of a quick, rhythm-and-timing passing attack that has become surprisingly effective over the course of Gilliam’s three starts.
After a shaky first outing against New Mexico, Gilliam has steadily improved as the coaching staff has given him more responsibility within the offense. Against Air Force on Friday, Gilliam looked very sharp, completing 26-of-38 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns. For comparison, those completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns would all be career highs for Rogers.
Mike Grimala and Case Keefer look back on UNLV's narrow loss to Air Force and ahead to its trip to San Jose State. The game against the Spartans looks like the Rebels' best remaining shot at a win, as long as Max Gilliam can build on the promise he showed against the Falcons.
After taking some time to figure out Gilliam’s strengths, head coach Tony Sanchez said the coaching staff has done a good job of tailoring the offense around his playing style.
“It’s [Gilliam] and coaching,” Sanchez said. “It probably took us a good game, game-and-a-half to really see what are the things that we probably need to pull back on and expand on because it’s more Max and less Armani. You run one offense and you run it based on the guy who is your starting quarterback. You’ve seen us, we’re throwing the ball a little bit more than we have — a lot more than we have. RPO’s is his game; he’s done a tremendous job with that. And I think he’s getting rid of the ball. The timing of getting rid of the ball was so much better this week than it was the week before.”
In his three games as the starter, Gilliam has now completed 53.6 percent of his passes for 634 yards and eight touchdowns, with three interceptions. He showed improved touch against Air Force, placing several passes into tight windows where only his receivers could make a play on the ball.
Gilliam said that the Rebels are getting more comfortable with their new approach.
“Our offense is playing with a lot of confidence right now,” Gilliam said. “When you play with confidence you feel like you can execute anything.”
Despite his production in the passing game, Gilliam has yet to lead UNLV to a win. The Rebels have lost all three of his starts, and they head into a must-win at San Jose State on Saturday with a precarious 2-5 record (0-3 in Mountain West play).
Gilliam said the Rebels have to start winning — now.
“Every game here on out is super important for us,” he said. “We’ve got to win every game. So that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Francis to get first start
Tony Sanchez said starting safety Evan Austrie will miss the San Jose State game due to injury, which will mean increased playing time for safeties Greg Francis and Demitrious Gibbs.
Francis, a sophomore who played under Sanchez at Bishop Gorman, will get his first career start.
“I’ve just got to prepare like every other week,” Francis said. “Watch film, get the play calls down, but this week I have to push myself even a little harder than I normally do.”
Francis agreed with Sanchez’s point from earlier in the week that the UNLV defense needs to regain its identity and attitude from earlier in the season.
“Being a defensive player, you’ve got to have some swag,” he said. “So I’m just going to come out there with a lot of energy and make some big plays and get our swag.”