Friday, Sept. 7, 2012 | 2 a.m.
- UNLV punter Chase Lansford among nation’s leaders after solid debut
- Confident UNLV defense, led by Tim Hasson, making positive strides
- Nick Sherry gets hit often in college debut, a 30-27 triple-overtime loss to Minnesota
- Tim Cornett ‘was a warrior’ in UNLV’s triple-overtime loss to Minnesota
- All UNLV Football Coverage
UNLV’s improvement this season depends on a lot of things, not the least of which is freshman quarterback Nick Sherry getting better as the year goes on. There are a lot of ways that can happen, but it probably needs to start with him staying upright more than he did in Saturday’s 30-27 triple-overtime loss to Minnesota.
Sherry was taken down for a sack only twice, but he was hit or knocked to the ground far more than that. The accumulation of those hits, Sherry said after the game, led to his poor passing down the stretch — 4-for-17 with one touchdown and two interceptions in the second half and overtime periods.
“We let Nick get hit way too many times,” left tackle Brett Boyko said Wednesday. “We as an O-line take pride in keeping our quarterback up, and we didn’t do a good enough job.”
To be clear, this isn’t all on the offensive line. After the game, Sherry blamed himself for not trusting the pocket and instead moving outside of it too quickly, which led to a few of those hits. Sherry also didn’t have leading receiver Marcus Sullivan — who had five catches for 53 yards — for the second half after he hobbled off the field with a reaggravated leg injury. He’s listed as probable for Saturday’s game at 7 p.m. when UNLV hosts Northern Arizona, an FCS team that last week lost 63-6 at Arizona State.
The good news for UNLV is that, to see some progression, it doesn’t have to get that much better. For starters, most of the hits weren’t the result of offensive lineman being lost out on the field.
“We weren’t breaking down in our assignment,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said. “It’s more about finishing plays and finishing blocks.”
If the linemen hold their blocks just a bit longer, Sherry should be able to keep himself in the pocket longer, which, as confusing as it may sound, could lead to him attempting passes more quickly. The reason for that is if he’s comfortable, he can spend those first few seconds finding his targets downfield instead of worrying about being a target in the backfield.
The other reason the passing game may not be far from making big strides is that the running game, behind two-year leading rusher Tim Cornett, looks ready to carry the team.
The plan has always been to rely on Cornett, Bradley Randle and, when he’s healthy, Dionza Bradford to shoulder the offensive load while Sherry finds his footing in college football. On Saturday, Cornett piled up 127 yards and two touchdowns on 25 carries while Randle had 45 yards on 10 carries. That’s a solid start, and if Bradford, the second-leading rusher in 2011, can contribute, they’ve got a good chance to get even better.
In UNLV’s ideal offense, one hand feeds the other. The running game’s early success should open up more space for Sherry to throw, but the rushers need Sherry to complete more than 16 of 35 passes, as he did Saturday, to prevent them from constantly stacking the box.
This will be the give and take of UNLV’s offense all season, every action working toward finding the perfect balance to make the Rebels a threat to opposing defenses week to week.
“First and foremost, that’s how we want to play,” Hauck said.
UNLV isn’t good enough to look past any opponents, especially just one year after an embarrassing 41-16 loss to FCS foe Southern Utah, but at this point, it’s really more important for the Rebels to focus on themselves. They will be favored, and if the passing game improves while the running game and defense hold steady, the outcome shouldn’t be an issue.
The Rebels still expect big things out of this season. Completing those goals can start by keeping Sherry off his back.
“We’ve got a good relationship with Nick,” Boyko said. “We tell him it won’t happen again, but sometimes things go wrong or there’s a mistake. … I think he trusts us, but we’ve got to do a better job of keeping our promises on the field.”