Phillip Payne’s last minute touchdown catch gave UNLV a 34-33 victory over visiting Hawaii late Saturday night. The Rebels are off to a promising start and a bowl bid still appears highly attainable.
However, the real test begins this week. Mike Sanford is hoping to accomplish something he has never done in his head coaching career.
Mike Sanford has never won a conference road game.
UNLV has lost 19 consecutive conference road games, dating back to the tenure of John Robinson. It’s a hurdle Sanford has been unable to clear in his first four years. The Rebels came tantalizingly close last year at Colorado State and in Provo, but failed to seal the deal.
Saturday, the Rebels travel to Laramie to take on the Wyoming Cowboys. The streak must not continue. A loss would do serious damage to their bowl aspirations.
With the first three weeks in the books, the season outlook is becoming clearer.
The Mountain West Conference is wide open this year.
In fairness, the Mountain West is relatively wide open this year, at least compared to the last few years. There still appears to be a gap between the “big three” and the rest of the league, but perhaps it’s more of a crack than a chasm.
TCU has been impressive so far, but against weak competition. BYU and Utah looked unimpressive Saturday, but against very strong teams. Colorado State and Air Force have looked strong at times, but rough in stretches. San Diego State, Wyoming, and New Mexico are terrible football teams.
While dreams of a MWC championship would be irrational, the Rebels have a great shot at exceeding preseason expectations.
BYU and Utah both visit Sam Boyd Stadium in October, and both will be favored to win. However, both are vulnerable this year, and the Rebels and their fans are hungry for a big win. If they can earn a split, or even an unthinkable sweep, the Maaco Bowl Las Vegas won’t be out of the question.
Sidenote: Mike Sanford has never beaten his in state rival, UNR. The Wolfpack look very beatable this year, providing Sanford another “big win” opportunity.
Pass defense is still a huge issue.
Perhaps the biggest flaw the Rebels had last year was the inability to shut down (or even slow down) the opponent’s passing game. Despite rumblings all spring and summer that the secondary would be vastly improved, the unit has continued to struggle.
They made a very mediocre Oregon State QB, Sean Canfield, look great. They got absolutely torched by Hawaii’s Greg Alexander.
Last year, the defense had just 11 sacks in the season. They have six in the first three games of this season. The improved pass rush should help the development of the secondary. If the Rebels hope to make noise in conference, they must continue to pressure the QB, and use that pressure to force turnovers.
A repeat of last year’s 11 sacks and seven interceptions will have the Rebels near the bottom of the conference again.
How many QBs does it take to screw in a light bulb?
There is an old saying in football: If you've got two QBs, you've got no QBs. In other words, if you don't have a clear cut starter, you have a problem.
The Rebels have two QBs. No really, they do.
UNLV has a clear cut starter. His name is Omar Clayton. Over the past two years, he's thrown for 20 TDs and just seven interceptions. His passer rating is over 150. He recently led the team on a game winning 14 play 67 yard touchdown drive. He is one of the top QBs in the MWC.
Interestingly, Clayton's back up, Mike Clausen, might be even better. When Clayton went down with an apparent knee injury in the second half against Oregon State, Clausen took over. He led the Rebels on two long scoring drives; the second put them on top late in the fourth quarter. He's completed over seventy percent of his passes, thrown two touchdowns, run for two more scores, and hasn't turned the ball over.
Sanford has tinkered with formations and plays that put Clayton and Clausen on the field together. If he can figure out an effective way to use the dynamic duo concurrently, they'll give opposing defenses fits.
The Scarlet and Gray Zone
When it's first-and-ten from the 14, the cheerleaders start to limber up. The tuba players clear their throats and grab their brass. The crowd rises, collectively counting six unhatched chickens.
In the red zone, the Rebels are as automatic as BYU in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Okay, maybe they aren't that automatic, but their efficiency is impressive. They Rebels converted a gaudy 95 percent of their red zone opportunities last year. This year has been similarly impressive.
The Rebels have entered the red zone 16 times all ready this young season. They have one fumble, one interception, one missed field goal, and 13 touchdowns.
Mike Sanford has a veritable arsenal of potent red zone weapons. Omar Clayton is a great athlete and a constant threat to run. Mike Clausen is an even better runner than Clayton. He's a wizard on a QB draw. Channing Trotter has a knack for punching it in (three one yard touchdown runs this year).
The receivers are huge and tend to dwarf the opposing secondary.
Rodelin Anthony, at 6'5" and 220 pounds, is always open. He's simply too big for a CB to cover. Ryan Wolfe has the best hands in the conference and weighs in at a svelte 210 pounds. He'll likely graduate as the all time conference leader in receptions and yards. Jerriman Robinson is excellent at using his size (6'2" 200 lbs) to bring down fade passes.
The defense is forced to play pick your poison.
House of Payne: Jump Around
One UNLV receiver was conspicuously omitted from the previous section. His particular talents merit individual attention.
Phillip Payne's college career got off to a sizzling start before injuries shortened his freshman year. He caught six TDs in his first five games. He has now played 10 healthy games in his career and has 10 career TD receptions. He is on pace to crush the school record for TDs (Henry Bailey, 24).
No CB has ever broken up a fade pass thrown to Phillip Payne.
Perhaps more impressive than his propensity to make spectacular TD catches is when he tends to make them. Eight of his ten TDs have come either in the fourth quarter, or in the final minute of the first half. He is remarkably clutch, the ultimate not-so-secret weapon in the two minute drill.
In barely a full season, he has two game winning catches, one game tying catch, and one go ahead catch late in the fourth. With the game on the line, they just lob the ball near Payne. He has come down with it every time.
Clayton leads an offense with the firepower to hang with almost any team in the country. The defense has shown some signs of life, but needs to play better.
The Rebels must begin to force turnovers. They have two interceptions in three games, and both came on fourth down and cost the offense field position.
The offense is loaded with playmakers who are possibly good enough to carry the team to a bowl game. Unless the defense starts making plays and forcing turnovers, Rebel fans will be enduring another forgettable football season, turning their full attention to basketball by early November.
As frightening as it may sound, ultimately the success or failure of this football team will be determined while Omar Clayton, Mike Clausen, Ryan Wolfe, Rodelin Anthony, Channing Trotter, and Phillip Payne are standing next to Coach Mike Sanford on the sideline.