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Rebels showcase deep ball, defense and a new playmaker in Week 2

What we learned from UNLV’s win over UTEP

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Steve Marcus

UNLV wide receiver Mekhi Stevenson (2) runs into the end zone after a reception in the first quarter during a game against UTEP at Sam Boyd Stadium Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018.

UNLV improved to 1-1 with a blowout win on Saturday, and though the opponent was an overmatched UTEP squad, we still learned something about the Rebels in the process.

A look at what worked for UNLV in the 52-24 victory:

Deep-ball design

The Rebels want to be a vertical passing team, and considering the strength of the running game and the power of Armani Rogers’s arm, that seems like a sound strategy. It didn’t quite work against USC in Week 1, but UNLV made it look easy this week against UTEP.

On the first drive of the game, the Rebels worked their offensive game plan to perfection. The first three snaps were handoffs that went for a combined 25 yards, setting up an ideal play-action opportunity on 1st-and-10 from the UNLV 49. Rogers took the snap in shotgun, faked an inside handoff to Charles Williams, then fired a deep strike to Mekhi Stevenson for a 51-yard touchdown.

Stevenson gets most of the credit for this play. He’s lined up in the slot against a linebacker, and when that LB drops into a zone and passes him off to the safety, Stevenson makes a beautiful move, feigning an outside cut before turning inside toward the post. The defensive back is left standing still as Stevenson blows by him, giving Rogers a huge window to make the throw:

Rogers said after the game that he recognized UTEP’s defensive play call, and it looks like he knew he’d have Stevenson 1-on-1 with a safety deep. Though there are other open options in the shorter part of the field, Rogers is confident that Stevenson will win his matchup. Then it’s a relatively easy throw for a long touchdown.

There are four major components to a successful vertical passing game: A respectable rushing attack, an offensive line that can pass protect, receivers who can create separation deep, and a quarterback who can stretch the field with his arm. On this play, UNLV checked off all four boxes.

New playmaker

UNLV has had great success recruiting the skill positions under Tony Sanchez, and it looks like Tyleek Collins is the next name to learn. The 5-foot-9 freshman receiver from Georgia looked explosive in training camp, and the coaching staff talked about finding ways to get the ball in his hands. Against UTEP, they used Collins’ speed to produce two easy goal-line touchdowns.

The first play came on a straightforward sweep, with Collins slicing into the end zone untouched from six yards out:

There’s nothing tricky about this play. Collins lines up in the slot on the weakside, goes in motion, takes the handoff at full speed and follows his blockers — including a fullback and the running back — around the right end. The blocking is clean and Collins reads it well. It’s a good play.

The real fun comes on his second touchdown. UNLV lines up in the exact same formation and brings Collins in motion again. It looks like the same play until the snap — when instead of taking a handoff, Collins pivots, reverses field and catches a short pass with nothing but empty field (and the end zone) in front of him:

The play design is amazing. Just like on the first play, the entire offensive line blocks like this is a running play to the right. Even the fullback and running back go to the right. The defense reads that and slides down the line, anticipating another sweep. Only one defender — the weakside end, who is standing up at the line of scrimmage — is tasked with containing the other side of the field. But he is no match for Collins’s speed, and by the time he realizes the action is coming his way, Collins has already blown by him, turned the corner and caught the ball.

Whoever drew up this play deserves a ton of credit, and I have to believe Collins was the impetus for putting both of these plays in the game plan. He is fast and explosive and the staff is doing its best to devise creative ways of getting the ball in his hands. In Week 2, they were able to leverage his skills to produce two easy touchdowns. It should be very interesting to see what other packages they have for Collins in the coming weeks.

2-minute drill

Rogers is a unique talent, and his run/pass skill set was on display when he drove the Rebels 93 yards in 87 seconds for a touchdown just before halftime.

A UTEP punt pinned UNLV inside the 10 with 1:49 on the clock, and after two handoffs for eight yards, UTEP actually called timeout in an attempt to preserve time and get the ball back. But UNLV picked up the first down on a Lexington Thomas run, and Rogers took over from there. The next snap saw the 6-foot-5 sophomore break contain and rumble 35 yards into UTEP territory, and after a Thomas run for 14 yards, Rogers ran for another 11 yards.

On 1st-and-10 from the UTEP 22, Rogers read the defense and fired a perfect strike to Darren Woods for a touchdown with 22 seconds left on the clock:

The drive showed the range of Rogers’ ability, from the long-striding runs to the absolute missile TD pass. Rogers is not a consistent superstar just yet — his passing still needs refinement before he can take over games like this on a regular basis — but it was an example of how good he can be if he puts it all together.

Disruptive defense

The Rebels were easy to game-plan against last year. They played a conservative defensive style, and they rarely forced offenses out of their comfort zone. For the season, they recorded just 11 sacks and six interceptions.

Through two games this season, the defense looks different. After allowing UTEP to score on its first two possessions, the Rebels took over and began making plays, and that allowed Rogers and the offense to pour on the points and pull away.

The decisive stretch came in the second quarter, when UNLV forced three straight punts (including consecutive 3-and-outs) and then picked off UTEP quarterback Ryan Metz. UNLV scored 17 unanswered points during that stretch, turning a 21-10 game into a 38-10 blowout by halftime.

UNLV already has 3.0 sacks this season, and their sack rate of 4.47 percent is trending better than last year’s 3.30 percent. It’s obviously still early, but after two games it appears the defense is trending up.

Punt coverage

The absolute worst aspect of UNLV’s performance in Week 1 was the work of the special teams units, particularly the kick and punt coverage. USC broke off too many long returns, and Sanchez said after the game that there were too many mistakes made by the kickers and the tacklers.

The Rebels cleaned that up against UTEP, and punter Hayes Hickens deserves credit for a phenomenal performance. Hickens punted five times and posted an average of 56.2 yards per punt, and four of his punts went for more than 50 yards. But despite putting so much distance on his kicks, the Rebels got down field and covered well — only four of Hickens’s punts were returned, and UTEP logged just 28 yards.

It wasn’t a perfect showing — one of those returns went for 25 yards — but the rest were covered well. Considering how terrible UNLV looked just a week ago, that represents a massive leap forward.

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

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