Mike Grimala, Ray Brewer and Case Keefer take stock of UNLV football through three games. How winnable really was last week's game at Northwestern? What are the chances of opening Mountain West Conference play with a victory at Wyoming off of a bye week?
The Rebels’ burgeoning quarterback competition didn’t amount to much on Saturday. Incumbent No. 1 Armani Rogers started and played the entire way in UNLV’s 30-14 loss at Northwestern, and now the question is, did Rogers do enough to keep his job?
Tony Sanchez was the main catalyst for the talk surrounding Rogers’s status as the starter, as the coach used his post-game press conference following a loss two weeks ago against Arkansas State to muse that it might be time to see what backup Kenyon Oblad can do. Sanchez did more than muse, actually — by calling out Rogers’s inaccurate throws, Sanchez’s made it sound more like a threat.
Sanchez sang a different tune after the Northwestern game. Although Rogers posted modest numbers, completing 16-of-26 passes for 120 yards with no touchdowns and one interception, Sanchez seemed to be content with the way Rogers ran the offense.
Sanchez also took care to contrast between Rogers’s meltdown against Arkansas State and his rebound showing on Saturday.
“Armani looked like a whole other guy,” Sanchez said. “He was comfortable back there, he was poised. He made a critical mistake and you know what, once in a while when you’re trying to make a big play and you get a big, heavy pass rush, balls are going to come out. That was unfortunate. The pick was probably the biggest critical mistake he made, but he also made up for it with a lot of really key throws today. So I was really proud of his performance, especially bouncing off the week he had a week ago.”
By heaping that kind of praise of Rogers after a loss in which the offense was shut out in the second half (including the hand-waving of the pivotal interception), Sanchez seemed to be making it clear that the quarterback competition was a strategic ploy to light a spark under Rogers.
With the vote of confidence, it’s all but assured that Rogers will keep the job through the upcoming bye week, and probably for the remainder of the season.
Is Sanchez making the right call? Did Rogers play well enough to give the Rebels their best chance to win at Northwestern, and does he represent the best chance for making a miraculous bowl push?
Despite the improved completion percentage against Northwestern, the passing game still proved easy to defend.
When UNLV called pass plays on third down, Rogers converted just 1-of-7, and the one successful play came via a pass interference penalty on the defense. His one completed pass on third down was a four-yard toss to Randal Grimes on 3rd-and-10. On two of the pass plays, Rogers was sacked before getting off a throw.
On the flip side, Rogers ran three times on third down. He converted twice, and the one time he came up short, he picked up a 4th-and-1 with a QB sneak on the next play. To put it shortly, Rogers was better at moving the chains on “passing downs” when he ran.
On his interception, he forced a pass to his pre-determined target and a linebacker was able to step in front of the throw for an easy pick. That happened on the opening drive of the second half, on a 1st-and-10 from the Northwestern 35. UNLV trailed, 16-14, and a field goal would have given the Rebels a lead.
The offense didn’t do much from that point, as eight second-half drives resulted in zero points and only 13 minutes and 21 seconds of possession time. In fact, UNLV’s only two scoring drives of the game came courtesy of long runs from Charles Williams, as he broke away for touchdowns of 37 and 65 yards in the first half.
If that second-half showing isn’t enough to get Oblad a shot, then it’s probably not going to happen anytime soon. Coaches usually prefer to make quarterback changes during a bye, so they can give the new guy two full weeks of reps with the first team. That goes doubly when the ascending passer is young and inexperienced, like Oblad. If Sanchez is sticking with Rogers now, it’s probably for good.
That strategy could work if the Rebels double down on their ground-and-pound identity, because the bigger issue on Saturday—even bigger than the play of the quarterback—was giving Williams just four carries in the second half.
Williams is the nation’s No. 2 rusher with 455 yards in three games, and he is averaging a ridiculous 9.1 yards per carry. He rolled his way to 132 yards on 12 carries in the first half against Northwestern, but the play-calling went away from Williams in the second half despite the close score.
Sanchez said the Northwestern defense began focusing on slowing Williams.
“I just think Northwestern did a good job, they keyed on him,” Sanchez said. “That’s counter-punching, right? We went out there in the first half and we jumped on them with Chuck, and then they were going to take him away.”
Williams first carry of the second half went for 12 yards. His next carry gained one yard, and then he was stopped for no gain; his final carry resulted in a loss of one. Though Williams did have those three unsuccessful carries, the fact that an opposing defense is gearing up to challenge the UNLV running game should never be used by the Rebels as an excuse to get pass-happy.
Rogers may not be able to pass UNLV to victory, but he has proven to be an incredibly important cog in the running game. Last year, the Rebels averaged 5.7 yards per carry in the six games he started, and they gained just 3.9 yards per carry in the games he missed. Sticking with Rogers for the next eight games could conceivably work if the offense rededicates itself to handoffs and read-option plays, even when the defense loads up to stop it.
For the remainder of the 2019 season, Williams needs to be the featured playmaker going forward, with the quarterback—whoever it ends up being—serving as the distant No. 2 option.