FAN OPTIMISM THAT Bobby Hauck's third season would bring the long awaited turnaround is quickly fading. Though UNLV is only a couple plays away from starting the season 2-0, the Rebels have failed to hold fourth quarter leads in both games and are quickly losing confidence. Nevertheless, one thing seems clear…
The Rebels have shown improvement the first two weeks of 2012 and a repeat of the 59-7 beatdown WSU handed them last season seems unlikely.
THE REBELS ON OFFENSE
| Cougars (1-1) vs Rebels (0-2)|
AT A GLANCE
6:00 pm Pacific Time
Sam Boyd Stadium (33,250)
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2011, WSU won 59-7.
WSU 5-0 in the series.
Cougs 34, Rebels 20
Players to Know
Nick Sherry, QB: Sherry is a 6-foot-5 freshman who won the starting job over incumbent Caleb Herring in fall camp. The potential is there, but he has admittedly struggled with the size and speed of the competition at the college level. In two games Sherry has completed just 50 percent of his throws for 355 yards, one touchdown, and two picks. He throws a nice deep ball but struggles under pressure.
Tim Cornett, RB: The 205 pound junior is by far UNLV's best offensive weapon. Cornett has rushed for 139 yards per game and three touchdowns.
The Rebels have fallen into the perpetual youth trap that many rebuilding programs do. The results have been so bad the first two years under Bobby Hauck that it often made sense to give playing time to younger players who might help the program in the future. That cycle is beginning to repeat itself. Despite having the entire offensive line back plus last year’s starting quarterback, running back, and fullback, the Rebels are still an extremely young team. The starting lineup features only two seniors and one junior. Their biggest area of strength is Tim Cornett's running but they are really struggling to find ways to complement it.
Against Minnesota, UNLV doubled down on power running, utilizing a lot of twin tight end power formations. Cornett managed 137 rushing yards in that game but Sherry struggled with a lack of receiving options, throwing for just 116 yards. The Rebs switched it up against NAU, utilizing a lot spread formations. The initial results were promising with the Rebs scoring touchdowns on two of their first three drives -- but despite not turning the ball over all game, UNLV never scored another point. This is a young and frustrated group looking for a leader.
UNLV will run the ball on almost all non-passing situations but Cornett simply cannot do it all on his own. Defensively, WSU needs to put pressure on Sherry who will try to burn them deep in an effort to loosen up the run defense. The receivers are young and undeveloped. Passing yards will only result from superior QB play. If the Cougs can avoid getting dominated on the line of scrimmage, UNLV should struggle offensively. A productive day by the Cougar offense would only compound the Rebels’ problems.
5.5 yards per pass: Inefficient passing kills drives. Sherry's accuracy has failed him on third downs.
THE REBELS ON DEFENSE
Players to Know
James Boyd, DE: The 6-5, 255 pound junior transferred to UNLV because they offered to let him play quarterback, but he was originally committed to USC to play end. The coaches switched him back to defense this spring after giving him a shot there. He is still learning the d-end position, but the impact on their pass rush has been noticeable. He had a sack in both games this season.
Peni Vea, FS: The Rebels have a shortage of playmakers, but the freshman Vea should be well positioned to try and make an impact. He leads the team with 18 tackles this season.
Hauck's emphasis on physical toughness is beginning to show through. Despite being 0-2 to start the season, the Rebels appear to have solved a lot of the problems with their defense. In 2011, the Rebels 118th-ranked defense was on full display in the Cougar's 59-7 shellacking. Although they gave up a lot of yards to Minnesota on opening week this season, the Rebs surrendered just 13 points in regulation -- their best effort in nearly two seasons. They showed even more determination against NAU, surrendering just 4.3 yards per play. UNLV is playing good “bend-but-don't-break” defense, but the offense is not backing up their efforts.
Before the Rebels can truly call themselves improved defensively, they will need to prove their pass defense. Minnesota and NAU simply do not have receivers comparable to WSU. Nonetheless, both schools threw the ball fairly effectively and the Rebs generated only one interception. Jeff Tuel or Connor Halliday needs to attack the secondary vertically and avoid too much horizontal passing, much of what has been ineffective so far. WSU's 8.7 yards per reception (118th nationally) as a team is ridiculously low given the talent level at receiver and quarterback.
How about 6-for-28 (21 percent) on third downs conversions allowed: The Rebel defense has given up a lot of yards but they have held strong when it counts, ranking sixth nationally.
THE REBELS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
The Rebels have really struggled on special teams, an area they expected to be a strength. NAU took a third quarter punt for a 75 yard touchdown that jump-started their comeback. Normally reliable kicker Nolan Kohorst missed a 30 yard field goal later in that game which would have given the Rebs a two-score lead. Despite a solid day on defense, UNLV never started a single drive in Lumberjacks territory.
-UNLV is a basketball school and their fans don't make any bones about it. In the first two games this season, Sam Boyd Stadium has enjoyed an average attendance of just 15,635. With enthusiasm already waning two weeks in and thousands of Coug fans planning their Vegas trip months ago, there is a decent chance WSU will have more fan support than the Rebels will on Friday.
-The Rebels played far better at home than they did on the road last year. Both wins (Hawaii and Colorado State) came in Sam Boyd Stadium, and they nearly beat San Diego State there as well. Opening with four home games this season had the Rebels hopeful they would start the season on a high note.
-Road non-conference wins are still difficult to come by -- WSU hasn't won a road non-con since 2005 – and ranked teams Wisconsin, Nebraska and Oklahoma State learned that the hard way again last week. Expect UNLV to put up a fight as their season hangs by a thread at this point.
-The Rebels are emotional and frustrated by the narrow losses and it is starting show. They rank 91st in penalty yards. The Cougs rank No. 93 themselves, so a flag-heavy game could be in the offing.