This weekend, I had the displeasure of sitting through one of the most disappointingly ugly football games that I've ever seen. UNLV squeked out a 13-12 victory over the Division II college football team Northern Colorado, in a game in which UNLV was favored by over 25 points. UNLV came into the season with high expectations after making it to a bowl game last year, but this weekend's game may have shattered those expectations for me.
I wasn't terribly worried after week 1's lopsided defeat at the hands of Arizona. UNLV was facing a tough PAC-12 foe that I didn't expect UNLV to seriously compete with. But this week's game against a Division II school was [for me] the benchmark for the season. If UNLV blew them out, then there season would seem to have potential. But if UNLV lost this game, then they would look like the same Rebels team that struggled to win 2 games in Hauck's first three years as head coach.
What I got instead was a very indecisive, nail-biting victory that has left me very unsure as a fan.
Almost giving away the game
UNLV's offense looked abysmal all game long, as starting quarterback Blake Decker's poor decisions almost threw the game away. Fortunately, the defense played well enough to hold on, and Norther Colorado's special teams failed to make the plays that could have won them the game.
There was one play early in the game that stood out to me as a bad omen. Hauck called a reverse flea flicker gadget play while UNLV was up 7-0 in the first quarter. The pass was intercepted, and seemed to give Northern Colorado a burst of adrenaline that carried them through most of the rest of the night.
I really don't understand Hauck's rationale for calling this play. I understand the desire to want to try out your fancy gadgets early in the season against an opponent that you expect to walk all over. But you should at least hold onto that play until you have a solid buffer. Two or three touchdowns at least. Calling this play this early in the game with only a 7 point lead killed UNLV's momentum and energized Northern Colorado's defense. It was a very bad call.
This mistake set a precedent of mistakes by UNLV that would linger for the entire game (right down to the end).
A game that Blake Decker will want to forget
A very poor performance by Decker and a laundry list of penalties by UNLV's defense kept Northern Colorado in the game and their spirits high.
Decker made very bad decisions with the football, and virtually all of his down-field throws looked very off-target. Even the long completion in the first drive that set up UNLV's opening touchdown had to be snatched out of the hands of a defender by UNLV's receiver! He looked fine when Hauck called short and medium-ranged plays for him, and it was the lack of quick, timing-based patterns that really hurt him. He was reliant on waiting for receivers to get open deep, and UNLV rarely ran plays with slants, curls, quick outs, and other relatively easy completions. Hauck's play-calling seemed to put Decker in situations in which he had to force the ball downfield.
Receiver Devonte Boyd snatched a pass from the hands of a defender in order to set up UNLV's opening touchdown.
This all culminated in UNLV's final play from scrimmage. After a missed field goal that maintained the UNLV lead, UNLV's offensive line finally asserted itself, and the team drove down the field to set itself up to ice the game. All UNLV had to do was run out the clock and not make a mistake. But the offense didn't seem to slow down its pace to run the clock, and Decker was snapping the ball with 15-18 seconds on the play clock for the first few plays of the drive, easily dragging out the game for almost another minute.
After UNLV drove down to a fourth and goal with 16 seconds left, all they had to do was keep the ball out of the hands of Northern Colorado.
Northern Colorado burned their last timeout, and then UNLV took a timeout in order to make sure that everyone knew what to do. Surely coach Hauck must've told Decker to hold onto the ball, stay in bounds, and not force a throw. Take a sack if you have to, but don't give the Northern Colorado defense an opportunity to run away with the game.
Well, Decker did exactly what he shouldn't do in that situation. He tried to force a pass into the end zone that was intercepted. Fortunately, UNLV was able to stop the defender from returning the pick for a touchdown, but it left Northern Colorado with one last chance to make a play. It also resulted in star receiver Marcus Sullivan suffering an injury. Hopefully, it is not serious.
There are a few extenuating circumstances that may excuse Decker's poor play. According to Hauck's post-game interview on the "Rebel Wrap-up Radio Show", Northern Colorado had a new defensive scheme in place, and UNLV didn't have any game film on it. So Decker didn't have a chance to prepare against the defense that he had to face.
I can sympathize with Decker's plight in that situation, but it is still no excuse for the poor decision-making at the end of the game. Especially considering that it directly followed a UNLV timeout that was taken specifically to tell Decker and the team not to make such bad decisions.
Losing his helmet was the least of quarterback Blake Decker's worries.
But this does cast doubt over a season that seemed to be very promising. Is Decker competent enough to lead the team? UNLV has a pretty good receiving corp, and it would be a damn shame if we don't have a quarterback who can get them the ball.
But the blame is not exclusively on Decker. The offensive line also had some breakdowns that lead to a few sacks, including a late-game safety. The punting game was sub-par. And the defense was penalized far too often. This was especially hurtful considering that UNLV was one of the least-penalized teams int he nation last year.
If UNLV could barely hold their own against Northern Colorado, then are they going to be able to stand up against Northern Illinois next week? Or Mountain West opponents like Fresno, Colorado State, San Jose, Boise, and Nevada?
This game made me feel very nostalgic for last year. Caleb Herring and Tim Cornett were critical losses to this team whose contributions can not be overrated. Unfortunately, if Blake Decker isn't the guy, I don't think Nick Sherry is going come off the bench to save the team's season the way that Herring did last year.
At the end of the night, I almost feel as if UNLV owes Northern Colorado an apology for winning the game. Northern Colorado played well enough to win, and UNLV certainly played poorly enough that they didn't deserve to win.