By Tony Cordasco
Special to MyLVsports.com
The Tony Sanchez era of UNLV football officially began on Saturday night in the steamy Land of Lincoln with a competitive 38-30 loss at MAC power Northern Illinois. Sanchez is the 11th head coach in school history. Here are some of my thoughts on what transpired.
* This was my Tweet immediately following Saturday night’s contest:
— Tony Cordasco (@TonyDasco) September 6, 2015
You get the feeling Sanchez truly is not one for moral victories. You can’t blame that for a coach that averaged less than one loss per year in his six seasons at national prep powerhouse Bishop Gorman. For Sanchez, there is no consolation prize.
On Saturday night, he and his experienced coaching staff put UNLV in a position to tie the game at Northern Illinois on its final drive. The Rebels fell to Huskies 38-30 and were one Devonte Boyd drop away from keeping that late potential game-tying touchdown drive alive.
Let’s call it a building block, a foundation and no moral win for the Sanchez regime. Those who saw this team practice in the spring and fall knew the Rebels would show up and play hard. UNLV took it to NIU and had the Huskies reeling in the first half while building a 17-3 lead. The Huskies eventually wore down the Rebels defense in the second half, but UNLV was the early aggressor on both sides of the ball.
* Senior Blake Decker threw for 319 yards and two touchdowns on 21-of-39 passing. His average reception was good for less than 15 yards (Boyd’s 64 yard gallop on the opening drive, and Aaron Criswell’s 41-yard TD included.) The 19 other catches netted about 10 yards per reception. This will improve. The pocket broke down so Decker had to hit his safety valve and wide receivers broke off their routes shorter to come back to the ball, runs after the catch were limited, and backs like Keith Whitely couldn’t get spacing on swing passes.
Decker, who threw 18 interceptions a year ago, did make better decisions against the Huskies. He was picked off once by Shawun Lurry on UNLVs second possession.
* I know UNLV wanted to force tempo early in the game, but with the Rebels leading 17-3, Decker and the offense went really fast. A couple of times the play clock was down to around 13 seconds. Was that part of keeping the tempo fast or will the offensive coaches clean that up? I would have liked to have seen NIU’s offensive touches limited.
* I liked the Barney Cotton play-calling on offense. The Rebels did a good job of keeping the Huskies defense off-balanced. UNLV will win games if they continue to reel off a lot of plays. The Rebels had 87 plays on offense on Saturday night to just 68 for NIU.
* Bad call: UNLV’s Kenny Keys was called for interference on a punt return by NIU. The replay showed Chad Beebe never raised his arms over his shoulders to call a fair catch, so Keys blasted him. This was a blown call as UNLV was penalized 15 yards on the play. Meanwhile, Keys’ younger brother, Kendal led the Rebels with six receptions on offense.
* UNLV almost got to punter Jacob Ambrose twice in the game. The Rebels came with a ton of pressure from all directions. But they almost blocked two punts by outnumbering blockers up the middle. Good to see the improvement overall on special teams. Coach Andy LaRussa deserves credit. LaRussa, you may recall, came back to UNLV this season after serving as a grad assistant from 2005 to 2008.
* NIU had the slogan “The Hard Way” on padding under their helmet. This was a much harder win than anticipated for the Huskies, I’m sure.
* I can’t remember the normally sure-handed Boyd ever dropping a pass in the open field. Last year, Boyd had 65 receptions for 980 yards en route to Freshman All-American honors. The Basic High grad wound up with his fourth career 100-yard receiving day (107 yards on five receptions), but he couldn’t haul in a pass from Decker with 1:20 left in the game that would have given the Rebels a first down and kept a potential game-tying touchdown drive alive.
* I thought the tight end position would be a strong receiving option this year for the Rebels. Jake Phillips had just one grab for 23 yards. Junior tight end Andrew Price had a drop in the open field in the first half and then appeared to miss a block that drew the wrath of Coach Sanchez when he returned to the sideline. I do believe the position as a whole has shown some improvement. Phillips did have a couple of seal blocks that sprung Decker and RB Whitely on runs.
* One surprise: I didn’t expect backup QB Kurt Palandech to get any reps. He came into the game in the first half and piloted the Rebels to a TD with his legs,. He finished with five carries for 42 yards including an 18-yard touchdown run.
* Junior running back Keith Whitely had a solid game. He is the best back in pass protection. He ran hard, carrying 21 times for 68 yards. He also had two receptions for 24 yards.
* Lex&X — The two freshmen running backs, Lexington Thomas and Xzavier Campbell, played sparingly. Thomas had five carries for 13 yards and Campbell rushed for five yards on his only collegiate carry. Thomas returned two kickoffs for 38 yards.
* Kent Baer’sdefense, which is listed as a 3-3-5 on the season opening depth chart, is aggressive and Baer likes to gamble a lot. The Rebels showed multiple looks but they blitzed a lot which also left DBs on an island at times. Baer’s top three tacklers on Saturday were DBs Peni Vea, Blake Richmond and Darius Mouton (combined 23 tackles.) Safeties Vea and Richmond came from everywhere and made stops in the open field, especially in the first half. Linebacker Tau Lotuleilei played well with four tackles, including 2.5 for loss, and a sack. UNLV’s defensive linemen also played well before they were worn down in the second half. Mike Hughes, Jr tallied four tackles while Sonny Sanitoa had three.
* Just when CBS Sports Network analyst Adam Archuleta praised the line for having good leverage on defense, NIU’s hurry-up offense got it’s rhythm and a replay of the Joel Bouagnon 16-yard TD on that series showed the defense out of position and a d-lineman standing up. Again, UNLV has depth issues and needs to stay healthy to be successful this season. The defense played hard overall as a unit and was much improved and was flying around.
* I got a tad fired up this week when a few local media members were making predictions on the NIU game and the season overall. Some of these “experts” were never at a practice. They judged the Rebels on paper I guess — last year’s paper.
* UNLV missed an opportunity to put more points on the board on the final drive of the first half. The Rebels drove to the NIU 42 when a bad Will Kreitler snap had to be recovered by Decker at the UNLV 45 with 11 seconds left. The Decker-Kreitler battery goes back to Scottsdale Community College where they were teammates for one season.
* Vea played all over the field on Saturday night and he had two stops on fourth down to preserve early Rebel leads. He was part of a gang-tackle to stonewall Ezra Saffold on a short pass. Then, he took an angle for a solo tackle on NIU quarterback Drew Hare, pushing him out of bounds a yard short. Vea led UNLV with nine tackles. He also had a sack. He also caused the fumble in the fourth quarter when he came on a blitz and knocked the ball away from Hare but the Huskies recovered.
* Sunday’s Chicago Tribune headline: “Northern Illinois pushed to the limit but prevails 38-30.”
* Huskies tailback Joel Bouagnon had 152 yards on 21 carries. He scored twice in the fourth quarter when the Rebel defense was worn out. Bouagnon had three TDs on the night.
* NIU wideout Kenny Golladay also had a big game. Golladay had nine catches for 213 yards, but the Rebels managed to keep him out of the end zone. Golladay made DB Jay’Onn Miles debut a rough one. The North Dakota transfer had a double move that showed him faking out Miles on a 48-yard catch and run.
* Rebel placekicker Nicolai Bornand gave up linebacking duties during the Fall Camp to focus on only kicking the ball. Bornand, who was the long field goal kicker under Bobby Hauck, now is the permanent first-stringer. Bornand had a perfect night, 3-for-3 with a long of 51 yards. Last year Bornand was 4-of-6 on field goal attempts.
* UNLV committed just three penalties in the game and led in time of possession, 35:34 to 24:26.
* Reminder: Saturday’s game against UCLA kicks off at 7:30 p.m. at Sam Boyd Stadium. It’s a Blackout but not on TV — fans are encouraged to wear black to the game. I can’t wait to see UNLV wear the new black unis.