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Rebels’ pass rush looks improved heading into Week 2

What we learned from UNLV’s loss at USC in Week 1

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Mark J. Terrill / Assocaited Press

UNLV wide receiver Kendal Keys celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Southern California, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, in Los Angeles.

UNLV put up a better fight than expected at USC on Saturday, playing the No. 15 Trojans tight for three quarters before running out of steam and falling, 43-21. But moral victories are only worth anything if they help build momentum going forward, and the key for the Rebels will be carrying that Week 1 performance into this week’s home opener against UTEP.

A look at what we learned in Week 1 and what it means for the Rebels in Week 2:

Rebels apply pressure on QB

The most impressive aspect of UNLV’s performance was the apparent improvement of the defense – especially when it came to rushing the passer. The Rebels posted a putrid sack rate of 3.3 percent last year, but in Tim Skipper’s first game as defensive coordinator they managed to record 2.0 sacks on 37 dropbacks (a sack rate of 5.4 percent).

The Rebels mixed their rushing calls on third downs, sometimes sending three or four down linemen and sometimes blitzing extra rushers. Skipper’s best call may have been this play on 3rd-and-5 from the UNLV 41 yard line:

UNLV blitz

The Rebels lined six defenders across the line of scrimmage: the usual three down linemen and a stand-up edge rusher, plus the middle and weakside linebackers. The strongside linebacker was also a step off the line of scrimmage in a blitzing position. At the snap, all three linebackers rushed the passer along with the weakside end and the stand-up rusher over the tight end. UNLV’s two interior linemen dropped into zone coverage in the middle of the field, leaving USC’s offensive linemen unsure of who to block.

All three linebackers ended up with clear lanes to the quarterback and rushed in untouched, with Bailey Laolagi getting credit for the sack.

Part of the play’s success was design; USC was clearly confused by the zone blitz and allowed multiple defenders to get through the line unblocked. There was also some luck involved; the play call by USC sent the slot receiver and the tight end on crossing routes over the middle, making it easy for UNLV’s interior linemen to play zone coverage and get in the passing lanes.

Aside from the two sacks, UNLV also pressured USC passer J.T. Daniels consistently and forced him out of the pocket on several occasions. If UNLV can get into the backfield that consistently against the next 11 opponents, the defense has a chance for a major turnaround this season.

Tony Sanchez certainly liked what he saw.

“Defensively it’s been a long time coming since I’ve seen our guys put pressure on the quarterback and get as many 3-and-outs as they had,” Sanchez said. “That was really good to see.”

Passing game remains work in progress

The Rebels did not have a strong passing attack last season, and that part of the offense was inconsistent again in Week 1. A lot of credit goes to the USC defensive backs, who covered and tackled well, but the Rebels did not execute in that facet of the game.

Sophomore quarterback Armani Rogers made a few impressive throws, highlighted by a 31-yard rocket to Kendal Keys for a second-quarter touchdown. But he completed just 12-of-27 passes for 97 yards on the day, and though he didn’t throw an interception, he did attempt two risky passes that USC was unable to intercept.

There were also too many misfires on long attempts, and Sanchez put that on the receivers for not creating enough separation and not winning enough one-on-one battles down the field.

The Rebels’ receivers should be able to get more separation against the UTEP secondary, so it will be important for Rogers to produce better numbers in Week 2.

Lexington is the man

Even after posting 1,336 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns last year, there was some question coming into this season about how many carries senior running back Lexington Thomas could expect. That question was answered resoundingly in Week 1, as Thomas logged 14 carries and racked up 136 yards and a touchdown.

Sophomore Charles Williams, who was expected to take a bite out of Thomas’s workload, got just one carry. Senior power back Xzaviar Campbell got four carries, and senior fourth-stringer Evan Owens got four carries in garbage time.

The most emphatic example of Thomas’s status came early. Though Thomas lost a fumble on the first play of the game, Sanchez never thought about replacing him with another running back — not even for a series or two.

If there was any doubt about Thomas being the top dog, that erased it.

“Nobody worried about it,” Sanchez said. “He fumbled the ball. We know Lexington is a great player and he turned around and made some great runs.”

Look for Thomas to again take the lion’s share of carries against UTEP — at least while the game is competitive.

Special teams should be avoided at all costs

UNLV executed a fake punt perfectly in the second quarter, with Evan Austrie taking a handoff and running 36 yards to set up an eventual touchdown. Aside from that, the Rebels’ special teams performance was a high-wire act.

Every kick-coverage situation was fraught with tension, and UNLV got burned too often. On one punt, junior Hayes Hicken mistakenly kicked to the middle of the field, allowing USC returner Tyler Vaughns to break off a 28-yard runback. Another punt went too long and the coverage was unable to get home in time, allowing Vaughns to return it 26 yards.

The worst mistake came immediately after Rogers’ go-ahead touchdown pass in the second quarter. The ensuing kickoff was supposed to be a “sky kick” — a high-arching kick that allows the coverage team to converge before the return man can haul it in and get moving upfield. Instead, the kick was a line drive, the coverage was late and USC’s Stephen Carr was able to run it back 73 yards.

Sanchez wasn’t happy with the execution.

“We had a couple miscues on special teams,” Sanchez said. “We called a sky kick and kicked it too long, we mis-kicked the ball into the middle of the field and gave them good field position, and then a couple of times when we were punting the ball we were supposed to be punting it to the boundary but we ended up punting it in the middle of the field and you see what the returners do – they flip the field position.”

UNLV is locked on making a bowl game this season, and the margin for error is too small to keep making game-changing mistakes on special teams. It’s something that has to be fixed before it costs the Rebels a game.

Run defense looks flimsy

While UNLV’s pass rush was relatively impressive, the run defense did not hold up as well. USC ran 38 times for 219 yards (5.8 yards per carry), and the Rebels’ front seven was gashed for big plays repeatedly. USC called 36 handoffs, and nine of those carries went for 12 yards or more.

UTEP only managed 2.8 yards per carry in its season-opening loss to Northern Arizona, so  the Rebels' run defense may not be an issue this week. But Week 3 opponent Prairie View A&M totaled 140 yards and 5.0 per carry in a Week 1 loss to Rice and 382 rushing yards (8.0 per carry) in a Week 2 win over North Carolina Central, so UNLV will have to clean it up soon.

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

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