UNLV Running Rebels logo

The Raiders may have already played home games in Allegiant Stadium, starting with a victory on a Monday night against the Saints on September 21. But the Raiders have so far played without any fans in the stands. Allegiant Stadium opened its doors to the first fans this weekend when the Nevada Wolfpack came to town to play the UNLV Rebels football team.

Back in the summer, the Mountain West conference had announced the postponement of the football season until next spring. For a while, it seemed like UNLV would not be the team to open up Allegiant Stadium after all. However, after the NFL, SEC, and a couple other college football conferences began play in September with strict social distancing protocols in effect and a [thankfully] relatively low number of incidents, the Mountain West decided to reverse course and move play back up to the end of October. The Raiders may have played the first game there, but it was still UNLV who opened the stadium to fans.

Photo by: Isaac Brekken via Associated Press.
The Raiders played their first Las Vegas home game in an empty Allegiant Stadium.

Unfortunately, despite the new head coach and the new stadium, UNLV is still the same old Rebels. The team has been completely unable to produce offense in its first two games, gaining a measly total of 25 yards in the entire first half of the opening game against San Diego State, and finishing the game with only 6 points (due to a missed extra point), while also rotating between three different quarterbacks. Coach Marcus Arroyo seems to have settled on Max Gilliam as the starting quarterback going into the game against Nevada, and the offense performed better, putting up 348 total yards on offense and 19 points in a 37-19 loss.

Marcus Arroyo was the offensive coordinator for an explosive Oregon football team in 2019, so the hope was that he would bring that explosiveness to UNLV, allowing the team to keep up in offensive production and scoring with its high-powered Mountain West opponents. So far that has not panned out. The season is still young, and it's unclear if the disappointing start is due to Arroyo failing to live up to his promise, a lack of talent on the team, the disruptions of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic (and lack of training camp and other team activities), or some combination of the above. I'm not going to condemn Arroyo after two games, least of all in this miserably, topsy-turvy year of 2020.

Photo by: Rudy Garcia via Las Vegas Sun.
UNLV was the first team to host fans at Allegiant Stadium.

That being said, I was not impressed with Arroyo's play-calling in that San Diego State game. He repeatedly called screen passes to wide receivers, despite San Diego State being on top of those plays each and every time. Either San Diego State knew those plays were coming and specifically prepared for them, or UNLV's offense telegraphed them far too clearly for them to work. The fact that Arroyo kept calling them, and didn't have some counter play prepared in case they didn't work made me worried about how he's scheming this offense. With San Diego driving on those screens every time, I would have liked to have seen an early pump fake to the screen, followed by a deep shot down the field. This would either catch the defense overreacting to the screen, or to force the defense to have to play back a bit and give those screens a bit more room to breath. I don't recall seeing such a play call in that game.

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Freshman Kenyon Oblad seemed to improve
considerably over the course of the season

I had given up on Tony Sanchez as UNLV's head coach early in the 2019 season. After failing to recognize that Armani Rogers just wasn't working out at QB, Sanchez waited until conference play had started before benching Rogers in favor of Kenyon Oblad. Oblad had an up and down season, but in my opinion, he showed early on that he was the better passer than Rogers. As I said in previously on this blog: UNLV doesn't need another runner; they need a quarterback.

UNLV ended up with a four-win season. I don't know if UNLV would have won another early game or two if they had played Oblad sooner. But I will say that I think Oblad got better over the course of the season, leading the team to two nail-biting (but ultimately meaningless) victories to close out the season. With another 2 or 3 games of experience early in the season, maybe he would have been playing better in the middle and late season, and maybe UNLV would actually have been able to pull out another win or two in conference play. We'll never know because Sanchez stubbornly kept Rogers in until after it was too late to salvage the season.

Tony Sanchez won't even get a single full season with the
Fertitta Football Training Complex that he helped build.

That being said, I do kind of feel bad for Sanchez. Despite his failings on the field, he was actually very successful off the field. His legacy with UNLV will be that he managed to drum up financial support for the team from friends and family, and he is the reason that UNLV now has its fancy, top of the line Fertitta Football Complex training facility. Unfortunately for Sanchez, that facility did not open until October of this year. Despite being the single biggest reason that training facility exists, Sanchez did not even have a single season in which to train his players there.

He's also missing out on the opportunity to coach the team in the Raiders new Las Vegas stadium. A part of me does feel like Sanchez maybe deserved one more year to be able to coach the team for a full season with these shiny new facilities and see what he could do with access to those resources. He worked hard to make them a reality for UNLV football, but he won't ever get a chance to reap their rewards.

UNLV hired Oregon's former offensive coordinator, Marcus Arroyo to a 5-year contract.

Instead, the honor of training UNLV's football team in the Fertitta Complex and coaching games in the Raiders' stadium will go to new UNLV head coach Marcus Arroyo. Arroyo is the former offensive coordinator at Oregon, and he will be coaching the Oregon Ducks in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day before he moves down to Vegas.

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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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