Mondays with Mike: UNLV’s bowl hopes face toughest remaining challenge at Air Force

Colorado State vs UNLV

UNLV beats Colorado State 35-16 in Las Vegas Saturday night for the Rebels' first home win over the Rams in school history, keeping their bowl hopes alive.

UNLV vs. Colorado State

UNLV quarterback Omar Clayton scrambles under pressure from Colorado State defensive back Elijah-Blu Smith during the first half of Saturday's game at Sam Boyd Stadium. Launch slideshow »
The Rebel Room

CSU POSTGAME: A successful snoozer for UNLV

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Ryan Greene, Christine Killimayer and Rob Miech break down a 35-16 victory for the Rebels over Colorado State which was a bit tough to watch at times, but at the end of the day kept UNLV's 2009 season relevant for at least another week. Plus, a sneak peek ahead to next week's test at Air Force, where it's do-or-die all over again.

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Next game

  • Opponent: Air Force (6-3)
  • Date: Nov. 14, 3 p.m.
  • Where: Colorado Springs, Colo.
  • TV: The Mtn. (Cox Ch. 334)
  • Radio: ESPN 1100 AM
  • All-time series: Air Force leads, 10-4

Editor's note: Each Monday, UNLV football coach Mike Sanford meets with the media to discuss last weekend's action and next weekend's matchup. So each week the Sun will bring you notes and quotes discussing both.

The first time this season in which the UNLV football team went up against a true 3-4 defense, the outcome was unexpected.

That was when the Rebels, then 2-1, fell on the road as favorites to Wyoming, 30-27, back on Sept. 26. UNLV never looked settled on offense, and it showed in the final numbers as Mike Sanford's club turned the ball over four times.

Now, the margin for error is much smaller as the Rebels (4-6, 2-4 MWC) head on the road one last time this regular season to face Air Force (6-4, 4-2), which employs a similar defense to Wyoming's, using three down linemen and four linebackers.

One more loss means no more potential bowl eligibility, and UNLV will be forced to play for nothing more than pride come the Nov. 28 season finale back at Sam Boyd Stadium against San Diego State.

"They're a 3-4, blitzing-style defense, mostly zone blitz," Sanford said Monday. "We've got to be able to run and throw against them. They're good. We've got to come out, move the ball on offense and score some points."

The problem there, however, is that no one has really figured out how to do either at the same time on the Falcons this season.

Air Force ranks seventh out of 120 FBS programs in total defense, surrendering just 263.7 yards per game to opposing offenses. Breaking that down into categories, they're ranked first in the nation against the pass (only 127.2 yards per outing), but 59th against the run (136.5). The Falcons' 12.9 points allowed per game ranks ninth nationally.

The only team to score more than 20 on Air Force this season was Utah, and the Utes needed overtime to do so.

Sanford said they've seen the 3-4 in flashes from other teams this season, but few are as deliberate in their base package as Troy Calhoun's club.

"Surprisingly, they do a lot of different coverages," he said. "A lot of times, really good defenses tend to do one or two things really well. They play a lot of different coverages, more than most teams would play.

"I think the other thing is they mix coverages well. There isn't a whole lot of rhyme or reason as to when they do it or why, they just do it. I think that creates problems for quarterbacks."

Most of what makes Air Force's defense so steady, Sanford said, is both versatility and production at the linebacker spots.

Seniors John Falgout and Justin Moore along with junior Andre Morris are first, second and fourth, respectively, on the team in tackles. The trio has also combined for 5.5 of the team's 23 sacks. The constant pressure Air Force puts on opposing quarterbacks has helped lead to 24 turnovers forced, which is tied as the fourth-highest team total in the country.

"I think it's a combination of their defense being good, being sound, they don't give up a lot of big plays, and offenses don't get a lot of opportunities because of their offense," Sanford said.

UNLV proved Saturday it could win with minimal time of possession. Despite Colorado State managing the ball for 37:59 of the 60 minutes of game clock, the Rebels put up 35 points and held the Rams to 16.

Air Force's offense keeps the clock moving better than most, thanks to a run-heavy scheme. Ranking 16th nationally in time of possession, the Falcons hold the ball for an average of 32:07 per Saturday.

Now or never

UNLV's defense has been both up and down — mostly down — against the run this season.

Well, there's no space for anymore downtime, as Air Force is known as a run-first, run-second, pass-later offensive football team.

Its run game ranks fourth in the FBS.

UNLV's run defense? It ranks 111th. If the Rebels want the 2009 season to remain relevant past Saturday, either that has to change, or the UNLV offense has to crack Air Force's defensive code somehow.

"That's gonna be a big thing," Sanford said. "Somehow, we've got to stop-slash-slow down the run game. To me, this game is about scoring."

More preparation than normal

If you need further proof that UNLV has adopted a team-wide do-or-die mentality in the season's final quarter, look no further than what went on when the team gathered for its Sunday practice.

Typically, the Rebels mostly focus on their own deficiencies and mistakes both during their session outside at Rebel Park and their time in the film room.

This week, given the complex nature of Air Force's makeup and the urgency of this Saturday's contest, things took a turn the other way.

"Normally, I'm gonna say on the next opponent we spend 15-20 minutes at practice, then another 20-30 minutes in meetings," Sanford said. "Yesterday, we spent quite a bit more than that."

Injury free

While most teams around the country typically get more and more banged up as the season wears on, UNLV is bucking the trend in 2009.

Off the top of his head on Monday, Sanford couldn't recall any major injury issues that came from Saturday's victory or lingered from before then.

Junior linebacker Ronnie Paulo suffered a minor knee injury, but wasn't slowed much on Saturday and will be a full go this weekend.

Last weekend was also positive for senior receiver Rodelin Anthony. While the 6-foot-5 red zone threat who has four touchdown catches this season did not register a reception against CSU, he played the game at 100 percent and did not re-aggravate a nagging ankle injury.

Playing the rest of the season with a cast on his wrist is senior defensive end Heivaha Mafi, who despite the obstruction recorded four tackles on Saturday.

Herring impressive

With all of this concentration on the present, Sanford took some time on Monday to note one bright spot for the future of the UNLV program.

After revealing that freshman safety John Therrell and freshman quarterback Caleb Herring — both redshirting this season — will simulate Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson this week on the scout team, he pointed out that Herring has impressed throughout his first fall on campus.

Still needing to put more weight on his 6-foot-3 frame before playing a key role in the Rebels' future, one of the crowned jewels of UNLV's 2009 recruiting class has lived up to the billing so far.

Sanford said that a player's true passion for the game can be seen by the level of effort given when playing on the scout squad, and Herring's sounds as if it's been unrivaled.

"Caleb's gonna be really good," Sanford said. "He's been scout team player of the week a bunch of times. He's really good. Completions, accuracy, he's just a great leader."

Despite the struggles ...

Sanford is encouraged by the fact that, despite his team's up-and-down season, the Rebels have given consistent, hard effort.

That was pretty noticeable on Saturday, though the Sam Boyd Stadium atmosphere was the most stale it has been this fall, with a season-low announced attendance of 15,902.

"The thing we talked about was just keeping on fighting," he said. "I felt like we were going to come out of it. It wasn't that there was anything said to get them playing harder. It was just continuing to play hard, and playing better, improving fundamentals, improving playing together as a team.

"I think when you're in difficult times, it either brings out the worst in people or brings out the best, and we had a bunch of guys step up."

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  1. Air Force will end the Rebel hopes for a bowl game

  2. yea I give the rebels little to no chance to beat the air force.but I sure cant wait to see unlv's new queter back they say he's pretty good!