Sunday, September 8, 2019 10:30 PM

I'm done defending Tony Sanchez

in Sports by MegaBearsFan

There was talk this off-season that this season would be a make-or-break season for UNLV head coach Tony Sanchez. Bowl or bust. If Sanchez and the Rebels could not put together six wins and make a bowl, then Sanchez would be shown the door, and UNLV would be looking for yet another head coach in its long, sad history of failed head coaches.

Tony Sanchez should be afraid for his job after embarrassing loss to Arkansas State.

Personally, I did not think that this was fair to Sanchez. Teams can often be too fire-happy. It's not like UNLV has a line of people applying for the head coaching job. They've tried pulling high-profile coaches out of retirement. They've tried hiring division II coaches. Those experiments all failed. Now they've sunk to hiring a high school coach with no collegiate coaching experience. What else is left for them to try? I guess if they get desperate enough, they could hire an amateur sports blogger... ahem...

All off-season, I was insisting that Sanchez' fate should not be decided on whether UNLV makes a bowl game or not. Instead, it should be decided by how competitive the team appears. If UNLV were to win 4 or 5 games, and miss a bowl, but their losses were all in close, competitive games, then I would have said that Sanchez deserves more time to recruit and right the ship.

But two games into the 2019 season, I am changing my tune.

UNLV did not look competitive -- or even competent in their 43-17 loss to Arkansas State -- a team from the Sun Belt conference. This wasn't a PAC team, or a Big 10 team, or a Big 12 team. This was a team that should have been on the same level as UNLV. This is a game that UNLV needed to win if it wanted to seriously contend for a bowl bid. Getting five wins within the conference is not going to happen. The Mountain West is actually looking like it might be pretty good this year. Boise, San Diego State, and Fresno are always good. That's to be expected. But Hawai'i had a big upset win against Arizona to open the season, Wyoming has racked up two wins against quality out-of-conference opponents, and Nevada upset Purdue (before being destroyed by Oregon).

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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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Raiders logo

The Raiders and Las Vegas announced months ago that the deal to move the Raiders to my hometown of Las Vegas has been finalized. I didn't write about it at the time because there was still a lot of unknowns. As you all may know, I was not initially receptive to the stadium financing plan. The city of Las Vegas went all in and basically gave the Raiders almost everything they asked for. Las Vegas would raise room taxes on tourists in order to pay for the largest portion of the stadium's construction budget. The Raiders looked like they'd be given numerous tax breaks (including tax-free bonds and property tax exemptions). It looked like the Raiders would even get out of having to pay rent for the stadium (which is supposed to be owned by the Las Vegas Stadium Authority, rather than by the Raiders themselves).

Being a UNLV alumni and a UNLV football season ticket-holder, a lot of my early frustrations were with the Raiders' (and the city's) insulting treatment of UNLV's football team. UNLV had been unsuccessfully lobbying for years with the city of Las Vegas to get funding for a new stadium. That UNLV stadium came close to happening. It was hoped that having a shiny new stadium on or near campus would increase attendance, allow UNLV to recruit higher-caliber ball-players, and maybe even potentially attract an NFL team (like the Raiders, Rams, or Chargers) to relocate to Las Vegas. Those plans fell apart, as the city simply couldn't afford such a project, and the Rebels didn't help matters by continuing to disappoint with two-win seasons. Then the Raiders come along, and not only does the city give them virtually everything they ask for, but the Raiders also tried to screw UNLV out of even being able to realistically use the stadium that was being mostly paid for by public funds.

UNLV had been unsuccessfully lobbying for a new stadium [LEFT] for years,
then the Raiders [RIGHT] show up and the city bends over backwards to accommodate them.

The Raiders initially wanted UNLV to pay a $250,000 stadium rental fee per game! This is despite the fact that the largest chunk of funding was supposed to come from public money generated by Las Vegas taxes, and that the stadium was to be technically owned by the LV Stadium Authority. If this were a public stadium (as proponents often insisted it would be), then the local public university shouldn't be paying a private corporation for use of the property. In addition to wanting money from UNLV, the Raiders also didn't want to allow UNLV to paint the turf or have any permanent UNLV branding in the stadium. Essentially, the Raiders didn't want to share this stadium that was being paid for with public funds.

A final concern was with parking and traffic infrastructure. Las Vegas' highways are already over-taxed (and perpetually being torn apart and expanded), and the stadium was supposed to be built in an area of town that already suffers from a lot of congestion. ...

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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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