A perfect microcosm of UNLV's 2018 season existed in the first possessions of that game against Nevada. On its first drive, UNLV had a 3rd down and 4, and a 4th down and 4, that they failed to convert. Both failures were off of 50/50 balls that were thrown deep along the sideline.

On its first drive, Nevada had a similar situation, in which it had to convert a 3rd and 3 (or 4) and later a 4th and 2. They succeeded on both conversions by throwing short drag routes to wide open tight ends. In both cases, the tight end broke the play for a big gain, and the 4th down wasn't just converted for a first, it was converted for a touchdown.

Now, we could chalk all this up to poor execution by UNLV. But it's not just poor execution; it's bad play-calling. UNLV is one of the best rushing teams in the nation (they are ranked 22nd now, but I think they were 30-somethingth going into the game), but they couldn't trust their running game to convert a 3rd and short/medium? Worse yet, instead of calling a safe drag route, or quick out, or getting the running back open in the flats, they threw up two 50/50 balls down the sideline? I could understand trying to take the shot play on 3rd down if you are already expecting to go for it on 4th. A good stop-and-go route could catch the defense biting on the short pass and leave a receiver open for a big play. But why would you try the same failed concept again on 4th down?

Sanchez routinely squanders convertible 3rd downs by calling 50/50 passes down the field.

This is typical of UNLV this season. I can't count how many times I've watched UNLV squander a convertable 3rd down on a failed jump ball along the sideline, or on the QB overthrowing a receiver running a post route down the middle of the field. Drive after drive, game after game, they just refused to call a play designed to get 4, 5, or 6 yards and the first down, and instead called plays down the field.

Is the coach calling plays on 3rd and short/medium that are intended to go down the field? Or is the QB just making bad reads and not throwing to the underneath receivers? Either the coaches are calling the wrong plays, or the QB isn't being coached to be aware of the situation. That's bad coaching, either way. Get the first down first, then you'll have three more plays to take shots down the field.

Excuses, excuses

Somehow, UNLV managed to pull off an upset, come-from-behind victory to beat Nevada 34-29, after having been down 23-0 early in the second quarter. The team is currently celebrating by painting the Fremont Cannon red, while coach Tony Sanchez gets ready to start hitting the recruiting trail.

UNLV came back from a 23-0 2nd quarter deficit to beat Nevada and bring home the Fremont Cannon.

In the meantime, however, UNLV's higher-ups are mulling over whether or not to keep Sanchez on for the 2019 season. UNLV was expected to win six or seven games in 2018 and make a bowl bid, but they ended the season with only four wins.

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With this weekend's loss to a two-win (now three-win) Nevada team, UNLV will end the 2017 season with a record of 5-7 -- one win shy of the 6-6 record that is usually the threshold for qualifying for a bowl bid. UNLV failed to execute on third downs throughout the game, settling for multiple field goals and failing on several fourth down conversions that ended up deciding the game. The Fremont Cannon will remain blue for at least one more year.

UNLV @ Nevada 2018 - tackle
UNLV couldn't convert key third and fourth downs in their loss to Nevada.
By the way, Nevada Wolfpack: nice helmets.

The big question is: even if UNLV had won the game and ended the season 6-6, would hey still deserve a bowl invitation?

If you ask me, the answer would be "no".

The 2017 season has been defined by disappointment and a dash of embarassment, starting with their week 1 loss to Howard. UNLV also gave up a huge lead to Air Force to lose that game. As far as I was concerned, that was the end of UNLV's season; that was where I gave up hope. But UNLV also dropped a game to a three-win BYU team and a four-win Utah State team. UNLV only had one upset win of their own, against a heavily-favored Fresno State team that ended its season with nine wins.

For me, it was those multiple, embarrassing losses that defined the season, rather than the one upset victory.

Even if UNLV had beat Nevada, they still may not have received a bowl invite. There's apparently a lot of 6-6 teams in the NCAA this year, and not enough bowls for them all to get invites. So UNLV may have been snubbed anyway. I certainly wouldn't have selected this team if I were on a bowl-selection committee.

Turning the corner yet?

Even though this season was disappointing, it does appear to have shown a lot of improvement, and there were definitely some positive moments. Senior quarterback (and converted linebacker) Johnny Stanton played well during a mid-season period in which Armani Rodgers was injured. Lexington Thomas and Charles Williams lead one of the most productive rushing attacks in the nation, along with the option-running legs of Armani Rodgers. The offense had a lot of good performances...

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The football gods gave UNLV every opportunity to win on Saturday afternoon against the Air Force Academy Falcons. The whole game was defined by fumbles, and virtually all of them bounced in UNLV's favor. Half a dozen Air Force fumbles were recovered by UNLV. Air Force botched a field goal snap. There was even a gust of wind that pulled a kickoff such that it hit the ground in front of the returner and then bounced backwards right into the hands of the incoming UNLV coverage team -- which was either the craziest fluke play that I've seen in a long time, or it's the most genius onside kick that I've seen in a long time.

UNLV vs Air Force - fumbles
The game was defined by fumbles, and UNLV was the beneficiary of almost all of them!

UNLV's 27-7 halftime lead wasn't really a case of them beating Air Force. The ball was literally being gift-wrapped (sometimes by Air Force, sometimes by blind luck) and handed to UNLV. They were the beneficiaries of constant mistakes by Air Forces and lucky bounces. But this undeserved lead also wasn't enough to guarantee the victory, as I smelled trouble as soon as UNLV stepped onto the field in the second half. The offense failed to move the ball, and the defense couldn't slow down Air Force's triple option attack. Even though the defense got plenty of rest in the first half of the game due to Air Force's constant fumbles, they still looked exhausted throughout the second half of the football game.

Perhaps the game-deciding play was the single instance in which the ball didn't bounce in UNLV's favor. After being completely shut down in the second half, Armani Rogers finally ripped off a big run in Air Force territory and looked like he might turn momentum back in favor of the Rebels. But he fumbled in Air Force territory, the ball bounced towards the Air Force goal line, and the ball slipped through the hands of two Rebel players before finally being downed in the end zone by Air Force. A Rebel even had the ball in his hand at the goaline, but a Falcon defender swiped it out of his grasp at the last instant, forcing the ball into the end zone where a Falcon fell on it. The play was even reviewed to see if the recovering Rebel had broken the plane before the ball was swiped. He was not...

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Every year, I hope that UNLV's football team will show some improvements. That it won't repeat the same mistakes that it's made year after year.

But every year, UNLV finds a way to let an easily winnable game slip away early in the season, setting a tone of disappointment for the entire season. Usually, UNLV at least gets its first game or two against a power conference team and gets to raise an illusion of optimism by playing surprisingly well until they inevitably get overpowered in the fourth quarter.

UNLV vs Howard - Caylin Newton
Cam Newton's little brother, Caylin, thrashed UNLV with his legs in a 43-40 upset.

But this year, the tone-setting upset couldn't even wait past week one. In fact, it couldn't even make it past the first play of the season. UNLV opened its 2017 season by going offsides on the opening kickoff. They went on to play a mistake-filled game that Howard University exploited to a 43-40 victory -- the biggest upset against a point spread in college football history. A $100 bet on Howard to win outright would have won you $55,000.

UNLV lacked discipline, committing multiple procedural penalties that killed drives and put UNLV in a hole early. They lacked energy and couldn't contain freshman quarterback Caylin Newton (Cam Newton's younger brother) who dominated UNLV with his running ability. And UNLV gave up back-breaking fumbles that prevented momentum from swinging back in their favor.

UNLV seemed to have a lot going for them going into this season. UNLV had one of the top running games last season. The defensive line is supposed to be improved. Star receiver Devonte Boyd is back from a severe injury that prematurely ended his 2016 campaign, and he has a hyped up freshman quarterback throwing him the ball.

The offense did show some promise. Rogers and Boyd connected on some big passes, and the running game looked pretty good. They even met their goal of 40 points per game!

UNLV vs Howard - Devonte Boyd
Armani Rogers and Devonte Boyd hooked up for a couple big plays.

The defense, however, looked abysmal. From the start, they showed a frustrating lack of energy. They lost contain, missed open-field tackles, and couldn't get to Caylin Newton in the pocket. From the start of the game, the defense looked like it was tired, as if it had already gone through three quarters of ground-and-pound football. Howard had even recognized that UNLV's greatest weakness is likely to be its secondary and coverage against the deep pass. Howard took a number of shots down the field, but was never able to connect. Kudos to Howard's coaches for identifying that vulnerability and designing a gameplan to exploit it, but they didn't have to exploit UNLV's obvious weakness, because even the supposed strengths of the defense looked rusty and full of holes...

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UNLV football fans were riding high earlier last month after the team's record-breaking victory against Idaho State, and the nail-biting victory against rival Nevada the following week. UNLV was going into a pair of winnable games against Mountain West opponents San Jose State and Fresno State, and there was a very real possibility (and expectation) that UNLV could go 3-0 in Mountain West play and go into last week's Boise State game to determine first place in the conference. I don't think anybody expected that UNLV could have beaten Boise State, but Boise's debacle against Utah State certainly left doubts about that team's ability.

But it doesn't matter, UNLV managed to blow the games against San Jose and Fresno in the fourth quarter. A potential 4-3 start to the season fell to a pathetic 2-5, right in line with pre-season predictions from skeptics. UNLV has certainly shown that they have the ability to play well and win games, but in traditional UNLV fashion, they still can't muster up the discipline to pull through at the end of the game.

UNLV blew two fourth quarter leads to San Jose State and Fresno State to fall to 2-5 on the season.

The overtime loss to San Jose State was pretty heartbreaking. Watching UNLV completely fail to cover that last-minute screen pass for the game-tieing touchdown was a punch in the gut. A win would have given UNLV a respectable 3-3 record overall, but instead, they walked out 2-4. The team put up a good fight, especially considering the limitations of backup quarterback Kurt Palandech. The comeback effort was admirable, but UNLV just couldn't get it done in overtime. The following week's game was probably more disappointing. UNLV walked into the fourth quarter with an 11-point lead over Fresno State and looked to have the game well in hand. But the offense just couldn't execute in the fourth quarter, and the Bulldogs managed to put together a couple scoring drives to strip the victory from between UNLV's fingers.

A lot of the expectations for the team were squashed going into the game against Boise State, but I still held out some hope for a surprise upset. Starting quarterback Blake Decker was back from injury, and Boise looked vulnerable to mistakes. If UNLV's defense could contain Boise's offense, then UNLV might have a chance. Unfortunately, UNLV's defense just couldn't do enough. Boise cut through UNLV's defense like butter in the first quarter, putting together three scoring drives to open the game. In the meantime, UNLV's offense sputtered thanks to a proliferation of dropped passes.

Keys dropped pass
Dropped passes prevented UNLV from sustaining drives in the first quarter against Boise.

UNLV seemed to have given up on even trying to run the ball, as almost every play seemed to be a pass. It felt like UNLV went into halftime with three total rushing yards. Eventually, the defense made a big play, forcing a fumble that UNLV recovered in the end zone for UNLV's first touchdown...

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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