It’s still all about UNLV’s defense

I am not sure when Sacramento State coaches decided it was best not to throw much against UNLV on Saturday night. It might have been when Hornets quarterback Jason Smith’s second attempt was a one-hopper on an 8-yard out that James Loney would have struggled to field.

Never say the boys from the Big Sky Conference are difficult to read, but we certainly appreciate their attention to a sportswriter’s desire to make deadline.

The problem: This kind of scrimmage, which might be too major a word for the snooze-fest that was UNLV’s season-opening 38-3 victory at Sam Boyd Stadium, doesn’t offer much of a true understanding of a team’s potential over three months.

How dreary was it at times in the first half? The loudest cheer might have come when No. 20 Brigham Young’s win over No. 3 Oklahoma became official and a shriek could be heard from the Club Level.

Las Vegas Bowl executive director Tina Kunzer-Murphy was seen heading there earlier.

I’m not saying. I’m just saying.

In the case of UNLV, scoring enough to beat the Division I Football Championship Subdivision team never was going to be an issue. The Hornets are a scrappy bunch. I’m sure they’ll have every chance against Idaho State this season.

Scoring against anyone on their schedule shouldn’t be an overly taxing concern for a UNLV offense that managed at least 21 points in all but one game last year and returns most of the skill spots that created such consistency.

Defense is another matter.

It has been for some time.

UNLV has an opportunity to earn its first winning record in nine years, but it won’t if those entrusted with stopping others mimic the defensive nightmares of recent times.

The Rebels on Saturday didn’t offer a single defensive starter who wasn’t on last year’s roster, meaning coaches believe there’s been enough offseason improvement from the nation’s 103rd-ranked unit to take another look at many who have struggled mightily.

Understand: The Rebels since Mike Sanford arrived as coach in 2005 never have ranked above seventh in total defense among Mountain West Conference teams. They have ranked last twice. They have allowed an average of 30 or more points in three of Sanford’s four seasons. They couldn’t cover air most nights.

Do you know how to tell when things have been awful defensively? When people keep talking about the one time you actually dominated someone good (a 27-zip thrashing of Utah) and it happened two years ago.

So there’s the challenge: Can a defense with some capable individual talent like linebacker Starr Fuimaono, end Jason Beauchamp and tackle Malo Taumua build enough consistency into eight other bodies each snap so that UNLV won’t have to score 35 points a week simply to stay in games?

“I thought we let them back in a little in the first half (UNLV led 10-3 at halftime), but then really brought the hammer down after that,” Sanford said. “One thing we want to develop is a killer instinct when we have someone down. … We played a lot of guys (defensively).”

No question. The Rebels substituted defensively like an NFL team in the preseason. Four safeties played ample minutes. Several cornerbacks saw time. Everyone got looks.

UNLV was fine all around. It will be much better against Oregon State this Saturday because no matter how many times you tell a kid not to overlook an inferior team and to be wary of playing down to its level, they are smart enough to know when solid is acceptable and spectacular isn’t needed.

The Rebels will be even better against Oregon State, which doesn’t guarantee success. But when your defense has struggled as UNLV’s has, don’t discount any game in which it holds an opponent to three points, 12 first downs and 228 yards.

UNLV has some things to clean up against the run. The Hornets’ Terrance Dailey (who played at Washington last season and went for 102 against Oregon State) rushed for 101 on 19 rushes.

Sacramento State didn’t throw enough — 9 of 19 for 99 yards — to determine how much better UNLV is against the pass, but when an end the size of Taumua (6 feet 1 inch, 270 pounds) has an interception at the goal line 20 yards downfield, you have to be impressed with his effort — and at the same time wonder what in the world he was doing way down there.

“To open up 1-0 is huge prior to having a big-time Pac-10 team come in here,” Sanford said. “A win is a win.”

Defend people this season, and there could be several more.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He also can be heard weeknights from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. on “The Sports Scribes” on KDWN (720 AM) and www.infernosportsradio.com.

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