Mike Strasinger / Associated Press
Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019 | 2 a.m.
The first half of the 2019 season didn’t go according to plan for the UNLV football team, but they checked into the midway point in strong fashion with a 34-10 road win at Vanderbilt to move to 2-4.
With six games remaining, the Rebels would have to reverse that record and go 4-2 down the stretch in order to qualify for postseason play. Can they do it? Here’s what we’ve learned about this team over the last two months, and what it means for the rest of the season:
The schedule gets easier
After opening against FCS doormat Southern Utah, the Rebels were underdogs against five straight Division-I opponents to start the season, including four contests where they were double-digit dogs (or close to it). That shouldn’t be the case in the second half.
The rest of the slate is less daunting: at Fresno State, vs. San Diego State, at Colorado State, vs. Hawaii, vs. San Jose State, at UNR. None of those teams rank higher than No. 76 in SP+ (ESPN’s advanced ranking metric), and three of them are outside the top 100 (Colorado State, San Jose State and UNR). The Rebels should be looking at six winnable games.
The passing game works best in small doses
The coaches themselves learned a simple but important lesson throughout the first half: run the ball. UNLV is built to hammer teams at the point of attack and drive the ball downhill in the run game, and the offense doesn’t work when the quarterback is asked to drop back 25 times (or 60 times, like in the Week 5 loss to Boise State).
UNLV committed itself to the run game at Vanderbilt, racking up 206 yards on 53 rush attempts. The coaches only called 16 pass plays, and they mostly came in manageable third downs or other advantageous situations, like Kenyon Oblad’s 63-yard touchdown pass to Randal Grimes, which came on a 2nd-and-short. That should be the blueprint for UNLV over the second half.
Oblad can throw
It wasn’t just Oblad’s perfect touch and accuracy on the deep bomb to Grimes that impressed, it was his ability to hit on third downs and keep the chains moving. On UNLV’s first drive, the Rebels trailed 7-0 and were faced with a 3rd-and-8 in their own territory. Oblad hit Steve Jenkins with a well-placed pass on the sideline to pick it up, and seven plays later the Rebels scored to tie the game.
That’s what UNLV needs from its quarterback when the run game is working. Oblad doesn’t have the ability to break off big plays with his legs like Armani Rogers does routinely, but if he can hit receivers in stride on a handful of third downs each week, the Rebels can make it work.
“Kenyon has played really well,” Sanchez said. “The way we managed the game offensively this week, you saw him have the ability to stand back there … he’s in the makings of being a really good college quarterback.”
Magyar is back in the backfield
Throughout spring practice, the most impressive-looking running back on the roster was unheralded junior Chad Magyar. A personal issue kept Magyar off the field for the first four games of the season, but his return could be a boon to a backfield that looks like it’s going to be the engine of the offense going forward.
The 6-foot-2, 215-pound bruiser ran 22 times against Vanderbilt and notched his first career 100-yard game (116 yards and one touchdown). If Magyar can keep up anything close to that kind of pace, he’ll be more than a good complement to No. 1 back Charles Williams — he’ll be a weapon himself.
The defense has two good players
Senior linebackers Javin White and Rayshad Jackson can wreck plays. White in particular has been great this season, making big plays behind the line of scrimmage (team-high 7.5 tackles for loss) and deep down the field (team-high two interceptions). And Jackson is a hammer in the running game (second-best 4.0 tackles for loss).
For defensive coordinator Tim Skipper, the trick will be designing a scheme that keeps White and Jackson involved in the action as much as possible over the next six games, because aside from the Rebels’ superlative linebacker duo, there isn’t much to work with on that side of the ball.
The Rebels are allowing 6.5 yards per play against Division I opponents, which is bottom 20 in the nation, and the run defense has been especially horrendous (6.3 yards per carry allowed, second-worst in the country). Even in a convincing win at Vanderbilt, the defense still allowed 7.5 yards per rush. Skipper will have to find a way to camouflage those weaknesses against the soft part of the schedule.
Can they win a close one?
One thing we have not learned yet is how UNLV will respond to a close game in the fourth quarter, because the Rebels haven’t been in that kind of situation yet. The first six games were each decided by at least 16 points, and none of them were tight in the final minutes. Can this sketchy defense come up with a big stop when it’s absolutely needed? No idea. Can Rogers or Oblad put points on the board when that’s the difference between winning and losing? We’ve seen Rogers do that before, but not with this group of skill players. How will Tony Sanchez manage the game when the season (and possibly his job) is on the line? It’s a mystery.
It’s extremely unlikely the Rebels will stumble through 12 consecutive blowouts this season. At some point, the pressure will be on late and that’s when we’ll get the answer to this question.