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Heading into bye, UNLV looking to figure out passing game

Analysis: Breaking down Armani Rogers, the receiving corps and more

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Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau

UNLV Rebels running back Lexington Thomas (3) scored against the UTEP Miners during their NCAA football game Saturday, September 8, 2018, at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas.

The Rebel Room

Problems in the passing game

Ray Brewer, Case Keefer and Mike Grimala diagnose UNLV's 27-20 loss at Arkansas State and look ahead to the Mountain West Conference opener against New Mexico in two weeks.

Coming off a tough loss at Arkansas State, the Rebels sit at 2-2 heading into the bye week, and there is much work to be done if UNLV is to qualify for a bowl game. While the defense and running game have exceeded expectations, the passing game has bordered on dysfunctional.

A look at what's been working and what needs to improve before UNLV begins Mountain West play in two weeks:

Rogers’ passing is an issue

Armani Rogers struggled with his passing accuracy in the first three games of the season (47.5 percent), but it could be overlooked due to UNLV’s tremendous success in the running game and their 2-1 record. But after Rogers went 5-of-21 for 23 yards in Saturday’s loss at Arkansas State, this is now the biggest issue facing the Rebels.

UNLV did just about everything it had to do in order to earn the best win of Tony Sanchez’s tenure, as the running game produced 310 yards, and the defense played a phenomenal 60 minutes. But the passing game was a fatal flaw, as Rogers simply could not connect downfield.

Many of the throws were misfires, with Rogers sailing the ball high over his receivers’ heads. But he also struggled to read the defense, as evidenced by his first of three interceptions on the night.

On the first pick, UNLV faced a 3rd-and-6 from the Arkansas State 32 early in the first quarter. On the cusp of field-goal range, a first down would have kept the drive alive and put the Rebels in scoring range.

Rogers appeared to think the defense was playing man coverage, which meant inside slot receiver Darren Woods would have a one-on-one matchup running a corner route against the safety. In man coverage, that’s a win for the offense. But Arkansas State’s defensive backs appeared to be playing a deep zone, and the outside cornerback sagged off his “man” and read Rogers’s eyes all the way. That allowed him to peel off the outside receiver Rogers believed he was covering and jump the corner route for the interception.

Had Rogers recognized the corner bailing out into a deep zone, he would have had an easy throw to the outside receiver at the sticks for a first down:

Armani Rogers INT

Rogers’ struggles in the passing game aren’t just due to inaccuracy, because he appears reluctant to come off his original read when the defense throws something unexpected at him. The UNLV coaching staff will have to use extra practice time during the bye week to get Rogers back up to speed in the passing game; if they can coach him up to the point where he can just make the easy reads and simple throws, it will help the offense tremendously.

The defense is working

Through four games, UNLV’s defense has been decidedly bowl-worthy. On Saturday, they held Arkansas State to 19 points — you can’t blame them for the touchdown and 2-point conversion that came immediately after a special-teams turnover in the third quarter — and that would be the story of the week if not for the failures on offense.

Against a sophisticated Arkansas State passing attack, UNLV held the Red Wolves to 3-of-13 on third downs, mostly due to a pass rush that generated consistent pressure on the quarterback. The Rebels recorded three sacks on 30 dropbacks and now have 11 sacks on the season (on 140 dropbacks). That already equals the team’s sack total from all of last year, and the Rebels sack rate of 7.86 percent currently ranks 30th in the nation.

And when the game was on the line, UNLV’s defense stood firm. On Arkansas State’s final six drives, the Rebels allowed just one score — a 34-yard touchdown run by Marcel Murray early in the third quarter. That would have been Arkansas State’s only score of the second half if not for the botched punt earlier in the third.

Whatever new defensive coordinator Tim Skipper is doing, it’s working wonders.

Separation wanted

While Rogers no doubt needs to improve his accuracy, timing and decision-making, the passing game could also use better play from the receiving corps. The Rebels’ pass-catchers once again created little separation on Saturday, forcing Rogers to make tough judgment calls and throw receivers open, which is not the strongest part of his skill set.

This deep ball on 2nd-and-20 in the fourth quarter was actually one of Rogers’ better throws. It’s a pass he usually overthrows, erring on the side of caution and placing the ball where only his receiver can get to it. But on this play, he saw that Mekhi Stevenson had inside position and threw a shorter pass that gave Stevenson a chance to run under it and make a play on the ball.

Despite having good position, with his body between the defender and the ball, Stevenson didn’t go for the catch. He low-pointed the ball and allowed the defensive back to jump over him and bat it away:

Rogers to Stevenson

Earlier in the fourth quarter, the Rebels were looking to convert a 3rd-and-3 from deep inside their own territory. Rogers rolled left and had a big window to deliver a first-down pass to Darren Woods on the sideline, but the throw was off-target and led Woods out of bounds.

At first glance, it was a bad throw. And it’s true, Rogers missed the mark. But it was also a catchable ball. Woods played the ball poorly — instead of dragging his feet on the boundary and extending his arms to make the catch with his hands, he left his feet and leapt out of bounds in order to trap the ball against his chest, giving him no chance of tapping his toes inbounds:

Rogers to Woods

Would it have taken a great play by Woods to come down inbounds with the catch? Of course. But poor technique made it impossible. Chest-catching shortens a receiver’s catch radius considerably, and on this play it might have cost UNLV a first down.

The Rebels punted instead. Arkansas State took over at midfield and scored three plays later to take the lead for good.

So while Rogers has been consistently off-target this season, he’s also not getting a lot of help from his receivers.

Disaster on special teams

UNLV had several chances to win in the fourth quarter, but Sanchez pointed to one play that happened early in the third quarter as the sequence that decided the game.

Trailing 13-7, the Rebels’ defense forced a punt from midfield with 11 minutes remaining in the quarter. Standing at the 10-yard line, junior receiver Brandon Presley misjudged the punt at the last second and backpedaled on the catch attempt; he muffed it, and Arkansas State recovered at the 2-yard line. The Red Wolves scored on the next play to take a 19-7 lead.

The mistakes were myriad. First, Presley was moving backward inside the 10 and still tried to catch the ball. Even though Arkansas State defenders were positioned behind him to down the ball near the goal line, Presley would have been better served moving aside and letting the punt bounce, especially when he realized he had misjudged the distance. Second, Presley was so thrown that he abandoned the normal basket-catch technique for handling punts and attempted an off-balance overhead catch, with predictable results:

Presley punt return

It was the third week in a row Presley has mishandled a punt. Against UTEP in Week 2, he made an ill-advised decision to field a bouncing punt at his feet and was tackled for a 2-yard loss. Last week against Prairie View A&M he dropped a punt and PVAM recovered.

The string of miscues may now be causing him to overthink things, as evidenced by the kickoff return immediately following the muffed punt/touchdown sequence at Arkansas State. Presley dropped the kickoff and was lucky to recover it himself, though Arkansas State was able to take advantage and pin him deep on the return:

Presley kick return

With two weeks to work on special teams before the next game, Sanchez should consider making a change to the return unit. Freshman Tyleek Collins is electric with the ball in his hands, but Sanchez said he was reluctant to put his trust in a true frosh to field punts in pressurized environments. After the last three weeks, however, it’s clear the team has little to lose by trying Collins on the punt team.

Or, there is another option — stop returning punts and kicks altogether. UNLV hasn’t returned a punt for a touchdown in 18 years, so from a risk/reward standpoint it doesn’t make sense to keep risking muffed punts in exchange for the slight chance of running one back. Maybe don’t put a returner deep at all — let the punts bounce and guarantee possession. The opponent will gain a few extra yards of field position on bounces and rolls, but it takes turnovers out of the equation and that would be a win for UNLV at this point.

And with the new kickoff rule, UNLV can fair catch any kick inside the 25-yard line and the ball will be placed at the 25. No chance for disaster and decent starting field position sounds like a good proposition.

After giving away a touchdown on special teams in a game eventually lost by seven points, all options should be on the table when the coaches evaluate the return units over the next two weeks.

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

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