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Behind Enemy Lines: Q&A with Mountain West Connection

We flew to Las Vegas -- for work, not pleasure -- to get the scoop on the UNLV Rebels. Mountain West Connection's Jeremy Mauss answers all of our questions and tells us the player that could give Michigan trouble.

Joshua Dahl-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan enters the third weekend of the season, looking to win its second straight game and move above the .500 mark. The school seeking to prevent Michigan from doing this is UNLV -- a program that has suffered through three decades of losing. That's not expected to stop this season either as the Rebels are 0-2 and sit as 34-point underdogs against Michigan. Most fan bases would presume that a game against an opponent like this is an automatic win. However, most fan bases don't follow a school that has lost to Appalachian State and Toledo, while suffering near-losses to UMass and Akron, in the past decade. So we want to make sure you know everything you need to know about the UNLV team headed to Ann Arbor.

That's why we approached Jeremy Mauss, who is the managing editor of SB Nation's Mountain West Connection, which covers every Mountain West school, including UNLV. Jeremy was gracious enough to spend his time answering our questions about this Saturday's contest. What does UNLV have in former high school coach Tony Sanchez? Why has UNLV performed well in the first halves of games this season before falling off? Who is the one Rebel that can give Michigan problems on Saturday? Is there any chance that UNLV pulls off the massive upset? Jeremy shares his insight below.


UNLV hasn't had a head football coach finish his tenure in Las Vegas with a winning record since Harvey Hyde went 26-19-1 from 1982 to 1985. That's a three-decade span of losing by six separate head coaches. Now, the Rebels have hired Tony Sanchez, who had been coaching high school football for the past 20 years. Yes, Sanchez developed a powerhouse program at Bishop Gorman Catholic (Las Vegas, NV), where he won a Class 4A state title in each of his six seasons there, but can his success translate to the collegiate level? Why has a program in a place like Vegas been so hard to resurrect?

Moving up from high school to FBS is a big deal. There are a handful of coaches to make the jump and they don't do very well, so the odds are stacked against Tony Sanchez from getting UNLV to one of the better of the Mountain West. It is a wonder that UNLV is not better since they are three hours from Los Angeles and the fertile recruiting ground of the whole state of California. Sanchez is upbeat and very outgoing with media and the town, and while that will go a long he still needs to win games. However, his attitude is much more different than prior coaches. Coming from Bishop Gorman in town, he knows what UNLV was and was not doing well in their recruiting pitch and so he knows that needs to be done with the message. UNLV showed up well for most of the game against a solid Northern Illinois team on the road. It will take time and so far I am a believer even with the two losses, but those were a pair of tough opponents as will be Michigan this weekend.

Through the first two weeks, UNLV seems to have lots of fight in the first half. In Week 1, the Rebels raced to a 17-3 first-half lead on the road against Northern Illinois -- a program that has won the MAC three of the past four seasons -- and, in Week 2, then-No. 13 UCLA could muster only a 10-0 lead deep into the second quarter. However, the Huskies and the Bruins outscored UNLV, 35-13 and 27-3, respectively, the rest of the way. What has been the difference for UNLV between the first and second halves? Is it a lack of depth and talent to keep pace? Is it poor halftime adjustments?

Spot on. The depth is what is a key issue for the Rebels. They have finished 100 or worse and in the bottom third of the Mountain West in recruiting, so they need to build up quality talent and then build depth. That will take a few years to achieve, if it can happen. However, there are positives seeing UNLV being able to hang close to some solid opponents. Adjustments could be an issue since Sanchez is brand new coach at this level, but he did a good job in bringing experienced coordinators in from Nebraska and Colorado, so it is more of depth and also the strength program.

UNLV quarterback Blake Decker injured his hamstring in the first quarter against UCLA and is listed as "day to day," leaving open the question of whether he will play against Michigan. Decker is an experienced dual-threat quarterback, starting 12 of 13 games as a junior in 2014, during which he totaled 3,252 yards and 20 touchdowns. He may not be the most accurate quarterback -- 57.6 completion pct. in 2014, 51.1 pct. in 2015 -- but he sure is much more accurate than backup Kurt Palandech, who completed just 4-of-15 passes for four yards (!) and an interception against UCLA. Do you think Decker will play against Michigan? If not, what does Palandech bring to the table?

Still too early to tell if Blake Decker will be playing. His accuracy does need work but he can make a big play from time to time. He does need to get more accurate and that would go a long way in UNLV being more competitive, especially with a future NFL talent in wide receiver Devonte Boyd. Kurt Palandech has seen time in the first two games but as mostly a running threat. His accuracy is not too concerning at the moment since he entered the game as a change of pace quarterback. Palandech is a junior college transfer so he is very new to this type of competition and if he gets the start at Michigan it could be quite intimidating seeing 100,000 in the stands.

Given how inaccurate both Blake Decker and Kurt Palandech are -- and that both can make plays with their legs -- it seems that UNLV really wants to run the ball this season. Last week against UCLA, despite trailing by multiple scores, the Rebels recorded 43 carries to only 23 pass attempts. You discussed Decker and Palandech above, and Keith Whitely (33 car., 141 yards) will be the one that joins them in the backfield. How would you describe Whitely's running style? And does UNLV have any chance of effectively moving the football on the ground against a Michigan front seven that held Utah's Devontae Booker to just 69 rushing yards on 22 carries (3.14 YPC) in Week 1 and Oregon State to 59 rushing yards on 33 runs (1.79 YPC) in Week 2?

The running game will have a tough time running the ball as this is by far the toughest rush defense the Rebels will have faced to date. The read option with the quarterbacks might allow for a few big runs, such as that long-ish touchdown run by Utah quarterback Travis Wilson that resulted in a touchdown in Week 1. Keith Whitely wants to go up hill and through the tackles but he struggles at times to find a hole to run through. Part of that has to do with the offensive line being brand new and maybe one of these weeks he will find room to run. He will struggle to run the ball and might not crack 55 yards.

Michigan's best corner, Jourdan Lewis, suffered a concussion against Oregon State, and his status is unclear for this Saturday. UNLV has two receivers that are targeted often: Devonte Boyd (8 rec., 162 yards, TD) and Kendal Keys (7 rec., 63 yards). Boyd is a big-play threat (20.3 YPC), while Keys is more of a possession receiver (9.0 YPC). What makes Boyd such a dangerous weapon? Will Michigan have trouble covering him if Lewis sits this one out? And is Keys capable of making defenses pay downfield?

Devonte Boyd will be in the NFL in a few years, he currently is a sophomore. He has the size and body to get position against nearly any defensive back, and the Mountain West does boast some solid secondaries at Utah State, Boise State, San Jose State and Fresno State; all four schools have sent at least one of their defensive backs to the NFL over the past few years and future ones as well. Boyd runs great routes and can make the grab. He would be even better if Blake Decker were more accurate. Boyd is the deep threat and Keys is that guy who will get the shorter throws, and the only way he is a deep threat is if he catches a ball and takes off in space, he is not a receiver who can consistently beat a player down field on a fly route.

The biggest question mark heading into the season for the UNLV defense was on the defensive line. The Rebels lost five of their top seven tacklers from that spot, and one of the two returners is defensive tackle Sonny Sonitoa, who's undersized at 270 pounds. So the defensive line now is populated with players who were reserves for a run defense that was 117th last season according to S&P+. How has UNLV's defensive line performed through the first two weeks? Should Michigan's work-in-progress man-blocking offensive line be able to generate enough push to kick-start the run offense?

Being Week 3 there should be some improvements but the defensive line is the weakness of this team and that is saying something as this team is not that great. Just due to the size difference is a big issue and even with the Michigan offensive line still learning on the job they should be able to have success on the ground. Look for the Wolverines to gain confidence as the game goes on as they will just tire out this UNLV line.

Unlike the defensive line, UNLV returns lots of experience in the back seven. All three starting linebackers, including All-MWC candidate Tau Lotuleilei, are back, as are safeties Peni Vea, Blake Richmond, and Kenny Keys. However, they return from a pass defense that was 123rd last season according to S&P+, and they were part of a defensive effort that allowed Northern Illinois quarterback Drew Hare to complete 21-of-26 passes (80.8 pct.) for 360 yards (13.8 YPA) and two touchdowns in Week 1. On the other hand, they rebounded in Week 2, forcing UCLA's quarterbacks to complete less than 50 percent of their throws and to toss three interceptions. What changed for UNLV's pass defense in Week 2? How will the Rebels try to prevent the Big Ten's best tight end, Jake Butt (12 rec., 118 yards, TD), from having a notable performance?

That was a big change for UNLV and credit the coaching staff for making adjustments in Week 2. Josh Rosen did not do that well as the Rebels forced him to be uncomfortable in the pocket. The passing defense is somewhere in between those two games and Peni Vea is their best defender and is known for breaking up passes. As for who will attempt to guard Jake Butt, not too sure. There will be multiple people doing various things to slow him down. Look for the defensive end to knock him at the line of scrimmage to disrupt his route and probably use a bracket or zone defense with a linebacker and a safety to not allow him to have any big gains, or at least limit what catches he makes.

Michigan opened as a 34-point favorite against UNLV, which is the largest point spread in favor of the Wolverines since they played Akron in 2013 (-35.5) -- a game in which Michigan needed a goal-line stand to survive. Other than scoring more points than Michigan, of course, what is the one thing that the Rebels must do if they have any chance to pull the massive upset?

Be more accurate from the quarterback position and get the ball to Devonte Boyd as much as possible. Boyd can arguably be said to be at worst the third-best player on the field this Saturday. However, getting big plays to Boyd is important, the offensive line needs to allow the running game to progress and make plays but that should not be counted on. Look for the secondary to be jumpy and try to pick off Jake Rudock who has four interceptions on the year and did not perform great through his first two starts. Getting short fields will help the UNLV offense in confidence and chances. They will need a lot of things to right to even stay in this game.

Okay, prediction time. Who wins: Michigan or UNLV? Final score?

Lets say, 38-13 for the final score with UNLV hanging around for a half and then fading away.


Thank you to Jeremy for answering our questions. Follow him on Twitter here.