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Rebels playing strong defense as they chase best start in a decade

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Christopher DeVargas

UNLV Football Head Coach Tony Sanchez and his Rebels take the field at Sam Boyd Stadium in their game against Prairie View A&M, Sat. Sept 15, 2018.

After beating Prairie View A&M on Saturday, the Rebels will head into their Week 4 matchup at Arkansas State with a chance to improve to 3-1 for the first time since 2008.

Here's a look at what we learned from UNLV’s win and what it means heading into next week:

Defense does the job

Judging on a scale of 1-10, UNLV’s defense has to be classified as “better than expected” at this point in the season. There was more good stuff against Prairie View, as the Rebels neutralized the PVAM running game and did a credible job of creating disruption in the passing game.

Coach Tony Sanchez said the game plan was slowing down Prairie View’s star running back Dawonya Tucker, and the Rebels executed. Tucker came in averaging an astonishing 10.2 yards per carry, but UNLV stifled him to the tune of 61 yards on 12 attempts (5.1 per carry).

The most encouraging aspect of the defense’s performance was the lack of gash plays on the ground. In the Rebels’ first two games, they allowed 17 runs of 12 yards or more (on 75 rushing attempts); On Saturday, Prairie View ran the ball 35 times and only managed four gains of 12 yards or more.

UNLV also generated pressure in the backfield, recording four sacks and five tackles for loss. Roger Mann had two sacks, and Gabe McCoy continued his excellent play with another tackle for loss. McCoy now has 6.0 TFL’s on the season; the Rebels’ leader last year was Mike Hughes, who managed 7.0 TFL’s, so McCoy is on pace to blow by that number.

Arkansas State features a dangerous passing attack, so that matchup will really be a test of UNLV’s newfound ability to put pressure on the quarterback.

Lex limited

Prairie View A&M clearly made it a priority to keep Lexington Thomas from getting out into the open field, and the Panthers employed an interesting strategy that kind of worked.

Instead of crowding the line of scrimmage with seven or eight defenders, as most opponents tend to do against UNLV, Prairie View played four down linemen and two linebackers. And instead of crashing the play, the linebackers played several yards off the line of scrimmage and let the action come to them. It seems counterintuitive to sit back with six men in the box against UNLV's dynamic rushing attack, but it served its purpose of keeping Thomas from getting his accustomed breakaway runs.

When eight defenders cram the box, it creates a wide patch of open field behind them — all it takes is an opening along the line, and Thomas can burst through the initial wave of defenders and gallop into that empty space at full speed. From there, he just has to outrun the defensive backs to the end zone.

By keeping their linebackers off the line, Prairie View maintained a second level of defense and gave their LB’s the ability to angle Thomas toward the sidelines:

Lexington Thomas vs. Prairie View A&M

Compare that to Thomas's 40-yard touchdown run against UTEP last week:

Lexington Thomas touchdown vs. UTEP

On that play, UTEP started with seven defenders in the box, and they all attacked the line of scrimmage aggressively after reading run. They are all bunched up along the line while Thomas is still two yards deep in the backfield. When a hole opens up, Thomas is able to flash through and break into open space. Forty yards later, he's in the end zone.

From Prairie View’s perspective, the strategy worked — Thomas’s longest run was 15 yards, and his median run was 3.0 yards.

Of course, there is a downside to that style of defense. With only four down linemen and the linebackers playing deep, Thomas was able to consistently churn out moderate gains. He finished with 120 yards on 30 carries, giving him his third 100-yard performance of the season.

UNLV doesn't want to use Thomas in a workhorse role, however, and Sanchez said as much after the game. He wants Thomas in the 12-to-18 carry range, which keeps him fresh to produce his trademark explosive plays. If other UNLV opponents want to keep Thomas hemmed in and limit long runs, this could be a defensive alignment we see again later in the season.

Perry plays

Sophomore cornerback Alex Perry finally cleared concussion protocol, and that is good news for the Rebels. No. 3 cornerback Ty’Jason Roberts was knocked out of the game after a scary collision and was diagnosed with a spinal fracture, so odds are slim he’ll be seen again. That means Perry will have to play — and play well.

He got into the game for Prairie View’s final drive, and though none of the action came his way, it’s a good sign that the coaches were comfortable sending him out there at all. As mentioned above, Arkansas State likes to throw the ball to multiple receivers, so Perry will likely find himself in the cornerback rotation as early as this week.

Collins contained

One week after his two-touchdown breakout against UTEP, freshman receiver Tyleek Collins was not as much of a factor on Saturday. He only saw three offensive touches, but he did make the most of them, as he caught two passes for a team-high 29 yards while racking up 17 yards on his one carry.

Collins might have had a bigger day, but two other plays designed for him had disastrous results. In the first quarter, he went in motion and looked ready to take a sweep handoff, but the shotgun snap was low and quarterback Armani Rogers was unable to handle it cleanly (Prairie View recovered the fumble). Then in the third quarter, Collins was unable to create separation on a comeback route, but Rogers forced the throw and the PVAM defender was waiting to make an interception.

The turnovers weren’t Collins’s fault, so don’t expect a trip to the doghouse. The coaching staff still recognizes his ability to make big plays and they will continue to manufacture ways to put the ball in his hands.

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

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