The Rebel redemption

By By Tony Pizza

By Tony Pizza

The first time Red laid eyes on Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Prison, he admitted that he didn’t think much of the man. Similarly, Warden Norton vastly underestimated Dufresne and his expertise with an eight-inch rock hammer, which eventually led to Dufresne’s triumph and the downfall of Norton’s empire.

The UNLV Rebels football team can relate to the underestimation of Andy Dufresne in Shawshank. Nobody in the Mountain West seems to think much of UNLV, mostly because the Rebels have a combined 4-21 record in the MWC since 2003. UNLV has been used as the MWC doormat for a number of years, but like Dufresne, UNLV has the potential to escape with a win when opponents overlook the talent it possesses, especially on offense.

UNLV’s impotence in the Mountain West presents the ultimate trap match for any team that comes into a game overlooking what the Rebels are capable of on offense.

Since head coach Mike Sanford took over for the Rebels after helping the Utes compile a 21-2 record during his two-year offensive coordinator stint, Sanford and two previous Ute assistants have tried to resurrect UNLV’s football program.

Under Sanford, UNLV has had a few scoring flurries this year. UNLV put up 54 points against Idaho State to open up the season and added 36 against New Mexico before falling to the Lobos in overtime.

Unfortunately for UNLV, the team lost quarterback Shane Steichen for the remainder of the season in a game against BYU last week. Steichen, who was fresh off a 295-yard, five-touchdown performance against New Mexico, seemed like he was going help UNLV become a competitive MWC team for the remainder of the year.

Turnovers and the lack of a running game has been UNLV’s Achilles’ heel this season. The Rebels have coughed the ball up 17 times so far this season. UNLV currently leads the MWC and nearly leads division 1-A football in interceptions thrown this season with 11.

As it stands, the loss of Steichen means UNLV will have to rely on the arm of Rocky Hinds, who has thrown three times more interceptions than touchdowns this season. This will be a trend that Sanford and his coaching staff will look to rectify the most for the final four games of the season as turnovers play right into their opponents’ hands.

Also with the loss of the swift-footed Steichen, and a banged-up Hinds, UNLV will be hard-pressed to improve on the 73.62 yards the Rebels average on the ground as a team. The stat is especially deflating in UNLV’s case, considering how much its spread offense relies on the run.

“You talk to Urban (Meyer), who I guess you’d say is one of the architects of the (spread) offense, it’s all predicated on being able to run the ball efficiently. That’s the first thing he’ll tell you,” said U head coach Kyle Whittingham, who also has first-hand knowledge of the spread offense. “If you can’t run the ball effectively, everything else becomes very difficult. I think that’s what’s going on there.”

The Rebels basically have to hope they can outscore their opponents, because when offenses come prepared, UNLV has had a hard time stopping opposing teams.

The Rebels do have two very talented preseason All-Mountain West Conference players on defense. USC transfer Eric Wright looked solid before being forced to the sideline for four weeks after knee surgery following the Rebels’ second game of the season.

Beau Bell, UNLV’s junior linebacker, continues to be the bright spot on the Rebels defense. Bell ranks seventh in the nation and first in the Mountain West in tackles per game with 10.9. Bell is also tied for second in the MWC with four sacks.

Despite having Bell, UNLV’s defense has basically rolled out the red carpet for opposing offenses. The Rebels have given up at least 28 points in all but two of their seven games this season. In two of those games, UNLV was roughed up for 42 and 52 points by Hawaii and BYU, respectively.

If UNLV wants to maintain a realistic shot of winning a football team, the offense is the key. Hinds must limit the number of times he turns the ball over. This obviously gives UNLV a better chance to sustain drives and score, but more importantly, it keeps UNLV’s defense off the field, especially in the compromising position it is usually left in after offensive turnovers.

Mike Sanford’s spread offense may be a long way from intimidating teams the way his system did with Utah in 2003 and 2004, but if the Rebels’ offense can come together they way it did at times against New Mexico and Idaho State, the Rebels have the chance to escape with a few wins in the Mountain West. It might not hurt if they get a really big damn poster of Rita Hayworth, either.

The Associated Press

New Mexico’s DeAndre Wright (2) breaks up a pass intended for UNLV’s Aaron Straiten during the second quarter of the Lobos’ win over UNLV two weeks ago.