The final leg of our 2019 summer guide is the Know Your Opponent series. We’ll take you through Northwestern’s fall schedule week-by-week, outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each opponent and identifying some key players to look out for. Obviously, a lot can change before game week, but this series serves as a way to take stock of where each program is at coming into 2019.
Up second is UNLV, who Northwestern will host on September 14.
Returning production: 68 percent (80 percent on offense, 56 percent on defense)
2018 record: 4-8 (2-6 Mountain West)
Coach: Tony Sanchez (16-32, 5th season)
The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of SB Nation and Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.
2018 S&P+ Overall: 106th
2018 S&P+ Offense: 51st
2018 S&P+ Defense: 117th
2019 S&P+ Projection: 100th
There’s a rebuild in the desert. Head Coach Tony Sanchez is a homegrown product, having made his mark as the head guy at national Vegas high school powerhouse Bishop Gorman. In 2015, UNLV was in need of a new face and hired Sanchez to try to fix the program. His hiring ushered in a new, slowly improving era that saw him lead the team to three, four and five wins over his first three years after taking over a two-win team. Throw in the fact that the Rebels will soon play in the new Las Vegas Raiders stadium and that’s wholesale progress, right? There was hope, especially with dynamic quarterback Armani Rogers, who can turn nothing into something with his feet and mask a lot of defensive deficiencies.
Unfortunately for UNLV, Rogers went down week five with a toe injury that sidelined him until the season finale. It demonstrated just how valuable he is. The Rebels averaged 34 points per game with him and 24 yards without, and their average yards per play regressed nearly half a yard. Even more than just the decrease in offensive production is the synergistic effect it had on the defense, who went from giving up an already shaky 29 points per game to an astronomical 45. UNLV started 2-2 some prolific offensive outings and a decently competitive loss to open at USC. The wheels fell off when Rogers went down, and they briefly were screwed back on to close the season with a win over Nevada.
If the above section did not make it clear, this is an offense-first team that largely starts and ends with Rogers. The team averaged nearly 29 points per game to go along with 391 total yards of offense per game. Considering that this team played with a backup quarterback for over half the season, those are impressive stats. It tells you that the run game is potent, even when defenses do not have to fear the quarterback and can stack the box against the run. With that rushing attack, the Rebels played ball control offense and averaged just over 30 minutes of possession per game.
One key thing to remember with the offense is its returning talent. 80 percent (!) of last year’s unit returns, and these players know how to put up points. UNLV went through a bit of a mid-season change on offense when it went a bit more pass-heavy. Now, the running backs room is a mixture of different talent. Star running back Lexington Thomas, who averaged five yards per carry and over 1100 yards and 12 touchdowns, graduated to leave the reins to Charles Williams. In 2017, Williams ran for a school freshman record 763 yards but suffered a season-ending injury next year. Now, the speedy tailback is the number one.
The pieces are in place for UNLV’s offense to be scary, it is just that they rarely stay healthy. According to Bill Connelly, only two Rebel lineman started all 12 games. And they still put up rushing eye candy. Nine offensive lineman return, and they are hogs up front. The Northwestern defense will have a tall task plugging up holes while also guarding against a dual-threat quarterback who can run the option (and we all know how that goes). Through the air, the top three most efficient wideouts, Darren Woods Jr; Mekhi Stevenson; and Tyler Collins, return.
Well. Oof. A run-first offense can chew up clock, but it cannot entirely prevent a defense from being on a field. And unfortunately for UNLV, when the defense was on the field, it was not doing much of anything. It ceded an average a catastrophic 450 yards and 37 points per game. The good news for defensive coordinator Tim Skipper is that after his first year, it can only really go up.
Offenses gashed the UNLV defense at basically every level, with opponents scampering for 187 yards per game and airing it out for 267. There was some talent, just not a lot of it, and Skipper employs an aggressive scheme. So though his unit made some explosive plays, it gave up far more. What is particularly interesting is the situations in which it really struggled, typically obvious passing downs. The Rebels ranked 126th in Passing Downs S&P+, and on third-and-4 or longer opponents completed 54 percent of their passes for 15.5 yards per completion. That can be attributed to mediocre talent, injuries that sidelined two of their corners — Jericho Flowers and Alex Perry — for most of the season and a scheme that might have been too aggressive for that ability level.
Skipper loses some of last year’s most productive players on the defensive line, but he’s got some promise in the teeth of the defense. Javin White and Gabe McCoy will both be senior linebackers to anchor it and clean up the holes that are left up front. They will be called upon a lot by Skipper, a former linebacker himself. The two combined for 120 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, six sacks, four interceptions and five forced fumbles.
Three Players to Know
QB Armani Rogers
Pretty much all you need to know about the straw that stirs the drink that is the UNLV offense. The numbers spell it out pretty clearly: he makes the offense more potent and also lessens the burden on a porous defense. Northwestern has struggled with mobile quarterbacks, especially those who are effective with the option and RPO. It will be critical for Mike Hankwitz’s unit, especially the linebackers, to contain Rogers with his legs. Between him and Williams, they could present major problems on the ground for the Wildcats.
LB Javin White
Although this defense constantly swings to hit home runs, it strikes out a lot. One of the more patient, consistent hitters is White, who right in the middle of the lineup hits for average. The senior was named to the Butkus Award Watch List this week for the nation’s top 51 linebackers. The California native earned Mountain West Defensive Player of the Week honors when he made two interceptions in an upset win over Nevada and was named to the preseason Third Team All-Mountain West by Athlon.
OL Justin Polu
They are not fancy up front, but they get the job done. The right guard has started all 36 games in his Rebel career, each season stabilizing a national top 20 rushing attack. In his freshman campaign he did not even allow a single sack. How healthy the offensive line stays for UNLV will be critical to its overall success this season and improving upon a 4-8 record, and Polu has been a rock up front. Northwestern has many defensive line combinations to work out, but it would not be surprising to see Polu match up against Earnest Brown on that side.