College Basketball



June 9, 2009, 7:30 am

The Quad Countdown: No. 84 U.N.L.V.

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Location: Las Vegas.

Nickname: Rebels.

Last year’s ranking: No. 111.

What was said:

What can the Rebels expect in 2008? Is asking for a bowl trip too much? Yes, this is not a bowl team. But asking for five wins should not be unrealistic, especially now that Sanford has filled the roster entirely with his players. The only definite win is the season opener against Utah State; after that comes a quartet of difficult games culminating with a home game against Nevada. There are four Mountain West teams head and shoulders above the rest: Air Force, B.Y.U., Utah and T.C.U. Unfortunately, my guess is a 3-9 finish and another year at the bottom.

Re-ranking: No. 92.

2008 record and recap: (5-7, 2-6). Not a bad season at all for the Rebels, who entered 2008 on a streak of four consecutive two-win seasons. The fine improvement likely saved Coach Mike Sanford’s job, as the former Utah offensive coordinator began his first head coaching job with only six wins in his first 35 games. Nevertheless, while the 2008 season did represent some progress (it is about wins and losses, after all), there remain some reasons for concern. For starters, while the Rebels scored 307 points – the most since 2000 – the team also allowed 391 points (a 32.6 per game average), the fourth-highest total in school history. The defense allowed 213.1 yards rushing per game (110th in the F.B.S.) and 24 touchdowns on the ground, in contrast to a U.N.L.V. ground attack that never played up to its potential. Only two of the team’s five wins came over Mountain West Conference competition, continuing a recent trend (more on this below). To reach six wins (or seven, the number U.N.L.V. will need to become a bowl lock), the Rebels will need to remedy these issues. Sanford might have earned another season with last fall’s performance, but it’s either bowl or bust for the Rebels in 2009.

High point: A 23-20 overtime win over then-No. 15 Arizona State gave U.N.L.V. its first win over a ranked team in five years. The Rebels trailed by 20-10 entering the fourth quarter, but scored 10 points in the final 6 minutes 30 seconds – including a touchdown with 18 seconds left – to force the extra frame. An underrated victory? The 34-31 win over Iowa State the following week, also in overtime. In 2006, U.N.L.V. believed it had beaten the Cyclones with a last-second touchdown grab, but the pass was ruled incomplete: Iowa State won, 16-10. Mike Sanford was not pleased.

Low point: The Rebels lost six games in the Mountain West, including five straight to open conference play. U.N.L.V. allowed at least 41 points in four of those five losses, with the average final score over that stretch a disheartening 41-26.4. To be fair, there were two narrow defeats in MWC play. U.N.L.V. led Brigham Young by 35-34 with less than two minutes to play, but B.Y.U. scored with 1:46 left to take its fourth straight win in the series. A week earlier, the Rebels held an 8-point lead over Air Force in the fourth quarter, but allowed the final 9 points in a 29-28 defeat.

Tidbit: How far behind is U.N.L.V. from the top programs in the Mountain West? In head-to-head matchups, the Rebels are a combined 18-53-1 against the five MWC programs which participated in bowl play a season ago (B.Y.U., Utah, T.C.U., Colorado State and Air Force). U.N.L.V. owns a winning career mark against only one conference foe, Wyoming (9-8), but has lost four of its last five in the series.

Tidbit (college edition): According to a report from the Nevada Policy Research Institute, only 41 percent of U.N.L.V. students graduate within six years. There’s really no excuse for that. I mean, other than the fact that the university is located in Las Vegas. Still, a lot of people go to college for seven years. You know, doctors?

Former players in the N.F.L.: 7 – OG Johan Asiata (Chicago Bears), LB Beau Bell (Cleveland Browns), RB Dominique Dorsey (Washington Redskins), TE Greg Estandia (Jacksonville Jaguars), LB Adam Seward (Indianapolis Colts), RB Frank Summers (Pittsburgh Steelers), CB Eric Wright (Cleveland Browns).

Top five N.F.L. players from U.N.L.V.: U.N.L.V. only began playing football in 1968, and didn’t move up to the F.B.S. until a decade later. Therefore, the top-heavy list. The former N.F.L. M.V.P. Cunningham leads the way, and McCardell had nearly 900 career receptions, but the Rebels go quickly downhill after their top two.

1. QB Randall Cunningham (Phi., Minn., Dallas, Baltimore; 1985-2001)
2. WR Keenan McCardell (Cle., Jack., T.B., S.D., Washington; 1992-2007)
3. CB Charles Dimry (Atlanta, Denver, T.B., Phi., S.D.; 1988-99)
4. RB Mike Thomas (Washington, San Diego; 1975-80)
5. CB Wymon Henderson (Minnesota, Denver, L.A.; 1987-94)

Team

Conference: Mountain West.

Head coach: Mike Sanford (Southern California ’78), 11-36 after four seasons with the Rebels. After three consecutive two-win seasons to begin his tenure at U.N.L.V., last fall’s 5-7 finish marked a step forward for Sanford and the program and raised expectations for this coming season. The three-win increase also bought Sanford a contract extension through 2012. It wasn’t hard for Sanford to improve upon his dreadful start. Though he inherited a program on the decline, the Rebels struggled through a 6-29 record through Sanford’s first three seasons; included in this start was a 5-game losing streak (Oct. 15 – Nov. 19, 2005), a 10-game losing streak (Sept. 9 – Nov. 18, 2006) and an 8-game losing streak (Sept. 29 – Nov. 24, 2007). Prior to being hired at U.N.L.V. – his first head coaching job – Sanford spent two seasons as Urban Meyer’s offensive coordinator Utah (2003-4), helping the Utes post a 22-2 mark over that span. While a single season at Stanford (2002) marked his only other F.B.S. coordinator experience before landing the job at U.N.L.V., Sanford’s assistant experience includes stints as the wide receiver coach at U.S.C. (1989-96), Army (1979-80) and with the San Diego Chargers (1999-2001). Sanford was also the quarterbacks coach at Notre Dame (1997-98) and Purdue (1987-88). Despite his impressive resume as an assistant on both the college and pro level, Sanford has been less than impressive in his first head coaching gig. Last fall’s improvement bought him some time, but that goodwill might not last through 2010 if the Rebels don’t at least match their 2008 record, if not move to .500.

Returning starters: 14 (6 offense, 8 defense).

Key losses: The U.N.L.V. offense was hit hard by losses at the skill positions, where the team must replace Frank Summers at running back and wide receiver Casey Flair. Summers, a former JUCO transfer, led the team in rushing in each of his two seasons with the Rebels. As a junior, Summers earned honorable mention all-MWC honors after a 928-yard season; the total was the 13th best in school history, and the most by a Rebels back since 2004. Summers followed that up with 740 yards and a career-high 8 scores as a senior, both team highs. Summers earned the nickname The Tank for his bruising running style and, I assume, for his penchant for streaking, much like Will Ferrell’s character in “Old School.” He was a fifth-round pick of the Steelers in April’s draft, making him the first Rebels offensive player taken since 1995 and the program’s first running back since Ickey Woods in 1988. Though there is more depth at receiver than in the backfield, the team will sorely miss both Flair’s production (202 career receptions, second in school history) and leadership. He had at least 32 grabs in each of his four seasons as a starter, including 49 for 560 yards and 4 scores (tying a career high) as a senior. His most accomplished season came in 2006, when he led the team and set a career best with 67 receptions. That fall also saw him post 816 yards and 4 touchdown grabs. He’ll be sorely missed. On the line, the Rebels must replace the starting guards Johan Asiata and Sifi Moala. Asiata was a two-year starter (at right tackle as a junior) who earned all-conference honors as a senior. The defense lost a pair of starters off the line and one in the secondary. At tackle, the 22-game starter Jacob Hales had 20 stops (3 for loss) and a sack as a senior. End Thor Pili – the winner of the Countdown’s favorite name contest of 2008 – concluded his sole season in the starting lineup with 29 tackles and 1 sack. In the defensive backfield, the talented cornerback Geoffrey Howard finished his two-year U.N.L.V. career with 79 tackles and an interception. Lorenzo Bursey, Jr. started seven games as a senior: three as a nickel back, three at strong safety and one at free safety. He had 62 tackles in 2008, a total good for third among U.N.L.V. defensive backs.

Players to watch: The best player on the U.N.L.V. offense is the senior wide receiver Ryan Wolfe, who ranks among the best non-B.C.S. pass catchers in the country. Despite having another season left to play, Wolfe already stands as the school’s career leader in both receptions (209) and receiving yards (2,735). As a junior, Wolfe’s 88 receptions for 1,040 earned him first-team all-conference honors for the second time, joining his breakout freshman campaign (55 for 911, 5 scores). His junior totals, which included six touchdown grabs, were career highs. Now entering his final season, Wolfe stands within striking distance of the Mountain West record for receptions (54 away) and receiving yards (900). There is quality depth at the receiver position: the team brings back the senior Rodelin Anthony (17 receptions for 227 yards) and the exciting sophomore Phillip Payne (29 for 436 and 7 scores). I’m also excited about the potential of the junior quarterback Omar Clayton, a former walk-on who, when healthy, ranks among the best in the Mountain West. Clayton’s only issue is staying healthy, as he missed the final three games of 2008 after injuring his knee. Before being injured, Clayton threw for 1,894 yards and 18 touchdowns; he also added 163 yards on the ground. Most impressively, Clayton threw only four interceptions in 258 attempts, including a school-record 173 straight attempts without a pick. Though the sophomore Mike Clausen played well in Clayton’s place down the stretch, winning two starts, the U.N.L.V. offense needs Clayton in the lineup. Three starters return up front, led by the junior left tackle Matt Murphy. Now entering his third season as the starter on the left side, Murphy was a freshman all-American in 2007 and an all-conference left tackle a season ago. After starting most of his junior season at center, the senior Joe Hawley will move full-time to the right guard spot. The Rebels must get a better performance out of its defense in 2009, and getting back eight starters is a good start. A number of contributors return on the line. At end, the junior Isaako Aaitui – perhaps the only player in the F.B.S. with back-to-back A’s in both his first and last names – had 32 tackles, 7 for loss, and 2 sacks in nine starts a season ago. On the interior will be Malo Taumua, who blocked a field goal in overtime to clinch U.N.L.V.’s upset win over Arizona State, and Martin Tevaseu, a mammoth run-stuffer. One player to watch: the junior end B.J. Bell, whose older brothers Beau and Zach were both standouts for the Rebels. The team brings back its leading tackler, the senior linebacker Jason Beauchamp, whose 127 stops also paced the MWC. He’s joined in the middle by Ronnie Paulo (90 tackles), the only other Rebel to finish with more than 75 tackles in 2008. The secondary is a concern. The junior Quinton Pointer, though temporarily banged up following shoulder surgery, is the lone Rebel with a guaranteed starting spot in the defensive backfield. Terrance Lee, a six-game starter last fall, returns at strong safety, but the position remains up for grabs.

Position battle to watch: If the Rebels are serious about beefing up their often anemic running game (and why wouldn’t they be?), the team will need to locate a running back to replace Summers as the team’s featured workhorse. The team’s leading returning rusher is the sophomore C.J. Cox, who finished his rookie season with 191 yards on 3.5 yards per carry. Cox will present a different look from the beefy Summers, as he’ll be more likely to stretch a play outside with his speed instead of looking to run over defenders. If the team wishes to employ a more bruising style, the staff will likely look towards the junior Channing Trotter (5-foot-8, 200 pounds), who had 110 yards on only 11 carries in 2008. Trotter had the longest Rebel carry of the season, a 58-yard scamper against T.C.U. The staff has two other options in a pair of unproven freshmen: Imari Thompson (redshirted last fall) and Bradley Randle, the latter one of the gems of U.N.L.V.’s 2009 recruiting class. Another group to watch? The secondary, which combines its returning talent with as many as eight incoming freshmen. Whether the youngsters can step into the rotation remains to be seen, but the Rebels certainly bolstered its depth in 2009 and beyond with the massive influx of talent.

2009 schedule:
Sept. 5 Sacramento State
Sept. 12 Oregon State
Sept. 19 Hawaii
Sept. 26 @ Wyoming
Oct. 3 @ Nevada
Oct. 10 B.Y.U.
Oct. 17 Utah
Oct. 24 @ New Mexico
Oct 31 @ T.C.U.
Nov. 7 Colorado State
Nov. 14 @ Air Force
Nov. 28 San Diego State

Game(s) to watch: Three home games to start the season is nice, though the Rebels will be underdogs against Oregon State and Hawaii. If the Rebels are to reach bowl play, the team must take all four from San Diego State, Colorado State, Wyoming and Sacramento State. The latter is the schedule’s only guaranteed victory.

Season breakdown & prediction: I believe U.N.L.V. is talented enough to reach bowl eligibility in 2009. Why? Because the offense, with a healthy Clayton, can score enough points to keep the team in most games. I’m excited to see what Clayton can do, a year wiser and more experienced, and Wolfe is as productive a wide receiver there is in a non-B.C.S. conference. And the defense, with eight returning starters, looks to be better than a season ago. But here’s the problem: to reach seven wins – six is likely not good enough to earn a bowl trip, especially if the team finishes seventh in the conference – U.N.L.V. will need to win two games against favored opposition. I don’t mean Colorado State, though the Rams should be better than the Rebels. I’m thinking more like Hawaii, or Nevada, or even one against B.Y.U. or Utah at home. Can U.N.L.V. do that? I’m skeptical. However, I believe this is a team on the rise (recruiting picked up in 2008). For 2009, I predict the Rebels to step up to 6-6. It would take an impressive upset or two in MWC play for the team to earn its first bowl trip since 2000.

Dream season: Another sizable improvement: 8-4, 6-2 in the Mountain West.

Nightmare season: Back to 2-10, giving the program five two-win seasons in six years. Understandably, Sanford is out of a job.

Where do U.N.L.V. fans congregate: Not a lot out there. But if you’re interested, try out Rebel-Net.com and RebelNation.net. If you remain hungry for U.N.L.V. sports news, I guess you could take a look at The Rebel Yell, the university’s twice-weekly newspaper.

Who is No. 83?: This university is located in a city whose name doubles as a 1949 film staring John Payne (also the name of a rabid Nebraska fan in The Times’ art department), a 2008 film staring Carmela Poch and a 2009 film staring Denisa Demeterova.


9 Comments

  1. 1. June 9, 2009 8:02 am Link

    #83 is UTEP

    — Cyklone36
  2. 2. June 9, 2009 9:48 am Link

    OMG. Your hint means El Paso, the movie, which means that UTEP (a.k.a. The University of Texas at El Paso) will be ranked No. 83 out of the 120. For most colleges, such a ranking might be embarrassing but for the Miners its rather miraculous to be ranked (almost) in the upper two-thirds. Even though home games are played in the Sun Bowl, known for post-season glory, this is a program built around a losing tradition. There hasn’t been a bevy of NFL athletes come out of El Paso since the 1960s. I’ve been watching these rankings daily, and after seeing five or six UTEP opponents ranked earlier, I was convinced that the New York Times took it upon itself to decide that UTEP was less than a D-I program. I wouldn’t have disagreed. Can’t wait to see the analysis. Let the laughter begin.

    bowman
    - -
    “Art will always be Art.” - Goethe

    — bowman
  3. 3. June 9, 2009 7:04 pm Link

    Paul, what are your qualifications as a sportswriter? You should post a bio of some sort.

    — RebelRed
  4. 4. June 9, 2009 8:48 pm Link

    And Bowman- why o why… bother.

    — Shyminer
  5. 5. June 10, 2009 11:43 am Link

    Yes, bowman, we all know what a football juggernaut UNLV is… LOL.

    — Lucaminer
  6. 6. June 23, 2009 12:40 pm Link

    You did a good job covering UNLV football. This is one of the more accurate and informative write-ups I’ve seen on the Rebels.

    But why is it relevant to this analysis to cite the statistic that only 41% of UNLV students graduate in six years?

    Did you know that only 44% of University of Louisville students graduate in four years? Will that statistic be cited in your report concerning the UL Cardinals football team?

    It’s time to bury the old stereotype that UNLV isn’t a real university, its students take classes in blackjack and basket weaving, etc.

    The University’s mission is to serve the local community which means it has a fairly open admissions policy. Taken together with the transient nature of the community and the fact that many students at UNLV work full or part time, it’s really not surprising that the majority of students don’t finish degrees in six years or less.

    It also doesn’t mean we’re stupid!

    You were very honest, fair, accurate and thorough in covering the football team. In the future, please extend that courtesy to your coverage of the academic side of the university as well.

    — NYR out west
  7. 7. June 23, 2009 6:32 pm Link

    Top five N.F.L. players from U.N.L.V

    Ickey Woods should be in this list!!!

    Woods rushed for 1,066 yards and 15 touchdowns in his rookie season, along with 228 yards and 3 touchdowns in the playoffs as the Bengals advanced to Super Bowl XXIII.

    — UNLVR
  8. 8. June 24, 2009 12:58 pm Link

    Agreed re Ickey Woods. If he hadn’t blown out both knees within 3 seasons he would have been incredible. He sparked a national dance craze.

    It is not that far fetched to think UNLV could beat either BYU or Utah on the road. Utah has a new quarterback and the spread offense is not one you can learn quickly. We were tied with Utah in the 3rd quarter last season and we shut them out the year before. I do not think we will beat Utah, but we have a great chance to beat BYU next season. Their defense sucks, especially on the road. They are without their safety valve AKA Collie (in the NFL). UNLV had a chance to tie or win the game with 20 seconds to go, but a young and inexperienced Omar Clayton failed to throw it away and in instead took a sack (12 yard loss) on 2nd and goal.

    — Rebellover
  9. 9. June 26, 2009 7:06 am Link

    don’t be bothered by the fact that it takes us a bit longer to graduate. I worked full- or part-time all of my 6 years there and went on to a law/MBA program at a top 20 school and a real job. and though I didn’t go to it, the hotel school is consitently either #1 or 2 in the country. not too shabby for a glorified community college.

    — Rebel Grad

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