ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Blake Decker started at quarterback, but it doesn’t matter who’s taking snaps when the wide receivers can’t get open.
That put pressure on the run game, which had its moments for UNLV, but not nearly enough of them and didn’t receive much help from the offensive line.
The Rebels’ defense recorded a third-quarter shutout and largely played well, but still gave up four Michigan touchdowns.
That’s the price of taking a football game for the money, a $1 million deal to serve as fodder for a power-conference school. The Rebels were never in Saturday’s game, but they fought and scrapped and made the final score of 28-7 appear closer than how it really played out.
“We didn’t come here for moral victories,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said. “We didn’t come here to look good. I’m proud of the idea that we fought, and we forced people into the fourth quarter, and that people had to keep playing against us. I’m disappointed in the result, but I know if everybody stays the course and continues to improve, we’re going to win football games.”
The crowd of 108,683 at Michigan Stadium, also known as “The Big House,” was the largest ever to see the Rebels play, and they watched UNLV, a 35½-point underdog, cover the spread.
Now the season becomes about far more than trying to cover point spreads, with the treacherous three-game opening stretch behind the Rebels. UNLV (0-3) needs to begin picking up victories, starting with this Saturday’s game against Idaho State at Sam Boyd Stadium.
The Rebels will carry some positives into that game. They held Michigan (2-1) to one second-half touchdown, limiting Wolverines quarterback Jake Rudock to 123 yards on 14-of-22 passing. He also threw a touchdown pass and an interception.
“It’s just a matter of doing what we’re supposed to do,” Rebels defensive tackle Mike Hughes Jr. said. “It wasn’t adjustments, it was tackling.”
UNLV also played Michigan almost evenly on first downs, with the Wolverines finishing with 17 to the Rebels’ 15.
The Rebels, however, couldn’t get their offense going until late, struggling against a Michigan press coverage that bogged down the receivers. Decker and backup Kurt Palandech combined to complete 14 of 26 passes for 143 yards, with a touchdown and two interceptions.
Decker made the start after suffering an injury near his groin the previous weekend against UCLA. Sanchez had said the decision on whether to play Decker probably would last until game time, and though it didn’t go that far, the call wasn’t made until Thursday.
The offensive struggles weren’t limited to the passing game. UNLV’s run game was held to 92 yards, with Keith Whitely leading the Rebels with 29 yards on 13 carries.
After opening the season with 30 points at Northern Illinois, UNLV has scored 10 in the past eight quarters. The Rebels avoided the shutout when Decker completed a 53-yard pass to Devonte Boyd to set up a 6-yard scoring toss to Boyd with 9:17 left.
“It’s sad, especially to come out here to do what we did in the first half offensively when our defense is playing so well,” said Decker, who completed 8 of 16 passes for 96 yards. “We can’t turn the ball over in games like this, and two of them are on me.”
Michigan scored on its first drive, with Rudock capping it by completing a 5-yard pass to running back De’Veon Smith. The Wolverines used scoring runs in the second quarter of 36 yards by wide receiver Jehu Chesson and 76 yards by running back Ty Isaac to take a 21-0 lead at halftime.
Instead of letting the Wolverines run away, though, UNLV played Michigan close in the second half. If the Rebels have shown anything this season, it’s a willingness to play hard until the end.
They forced Michigan to turn over the ball on downs late in the fourth quarter while at the Rebels’ 36-yard line, and UNLV proceeded to drive to the Wolverines’ 14 in a last-ditch effort to cut the score in half before time ran out.
“We fully expected to come in here and fight for a win,” Sanchez said. “We’re obviously disappointed where we’re at right now, but we’re going to learn from this, watch film, move on, and (Sunday) night get ready for Idaho State.”
Contact Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him: @markanderson65