The old saying goes “you only have one chance to make a first impression.” In his first game as head coach for UNLV, Marcus Arroyo did not make a great first impression in his head coaching debut against San Diego State, as the Rebels were rocked by the Aztecs 34-6.
“We didn’t get what we wanted tonight,” Arroyo said after the game, “but I think we’re going to learn from it, I think there’s a lot of things that our culture organically will learn from. There’s a lot of things we need to clean up.”
UNLV got out of the gate slow and found themselves in a deficit they could not overcome. Even with a new coach and new system, it was the same story as last year for UNLV’s struggles and they began with the lack of offensive production.
A telling stat is the first half totals, the Rebels had 25 total yards of offense, they had zero passing yards and went through three quarterbacks in the first half. Arroyo shocked many when he decided to start Max Gilliam over Kenyon Oblad and Justin Rogers.
However, Arroyo had planned all along to use all three in the game. He got a chance to see all the guys in a live same situation, and they will go back to the film to see what went right and wrong, and continue to evaluate the position as the season goes along.
“Max did a nice job there at the end moving the football,” Arroyo said. “We got a chance to see if he could keep the thing rolling and so I think he did some good things. We will continue to evaluate that position no different than anything else.”
Arroyo is not committed to a starter yet, so we will see who will start for the Rebels against UNR on Saturday. It also did not help that the Rebels were missing three key receivers, Randal Grimes, Brandon Pressley, and Mekhi Stevenson.
Aside from the quarterback play, the two most surprising things on offense was the lack of touches Charles Williams got in the first half and the offensive line giving up five sacks.
Williams only had five rushes in the first half, which is unacceptable. No matter what offense Arroyo is trying to run or identity he is trying to create, when you have Charles Williams in the back field, you have to give him the ball. I would expect, among the many changes Arroyo makes, is the involvement of Williams in the offense.
It was a complete surprise that the offensive line, with four returners who have spent at least three years in the program, allowed five sacks on the night. Arroyo said that part of those issues were the line learning and playing in a new system, and of course, the Aztec defense bringing a lot of pressure and creating havoc in the pocket.
Much of what went wrong for UNLV could be blamed on first game rust, which is understandable. The Rebels have had to learn an entirely new system in about four weeks, and they did not get any favors playing one of the best teams in the conference.
“I think the reality of it is we got to see some real speed, we got to see some live tackling for the first time. I think that took a minute to adjust…until you see it, until your guys get out there and finally get to hit somebody and tackle guys…I think that piece of it is probably the piece of our adjustment…we will do a better job of.”
The second half was not a complete disaster, the Rebels calmed down and went back to the basics when they were down 27-0 coming into the third quarter. UNLV came right out and showed some promise on a 13 play, 81-yard touchdown drive that was capped off by a touchdown pass from Gilliam to Steve Jenkins.
UNLV out gained San Diego State in the second half 161 to 111. They managed to get the run game going with Williams and Gilliam found some grove in the pocket. The Rebels had another chance to add a score in the fourth quarter but got too cute on fourth down and turned it over on downs.
Defensively the Rebels gave up too many big plays. In the first half, San Diego State ran all over UNLV’s defense and got the defense gassed, as they were on the field a lot in the first half due to the lack of success on third down conversions by the Rebel offense. Missed tackles were also relevant for UNLV as a missed tackle by Aaron Lewis led to the first San Diego State touchdown from Ethan Dedeaux of the game, which was set up by a 33-yard run.
The defense also had notable players out, such as senior linebacker Ferrell Hester, who had a knee issue, and key defensive backs Greg Francis and Drew Tejchman. Highly touted freshman Brennon Scott and LeShaun Bell also did not play. It is not clear if all the players who missed the game was due to COVID-19 and the positive test the program had a few weeks ago.
Arroyo should not be defined by one game; he has brought in talented recruiting classes and build a lot of hype around the program. This was not the scenario, installing a new style of play during a pandemic where practice time has been limited, that he wanted in his first year at UNLV. However, Arroyo promised that the team will learn from this game and improve for the next game.
“This is one step in a journey that I’m looking forward to and I think our guys are,” Arroyo said. “I’m excited about getting back home and back in a setting where we can learn from this and see the tape, get back on a practice field and get some more reps underneath us.”
UNLV will have plenty to evaluate and work on as they get ready to open Allegiant Stadium this Saturday night when they battle in state rival UNR in the battle of the Fremont Cannon.