Third down defense buries Rebels vs. Northern Illinois

Stats are often very overrated in sports.

UNLV coach Bobby Hauck himself quickly dismissed the fact that his Rebels had quite a night on the stat sheet offensively during Saturday night’s 48-34 loss to Northern Illinois at Sam Boyd Stadium.

“In this day and age, ignore offensive stats. Ignore them,” he said of his team’s 499-yard effort. “We had 500 yards and lost.”

That doesn’t mean all numbers are irrelevant.

One number jumped off the final stat sheet and may have been the deciding factor in the game.

Northern Illinois converted 15 of 19 on third down. That is an astounding number.

“In critical situations, we couldn’t get them off the field on third downs,” Hauck said. “We just couldn’t win on third down and get off the field.”

It happened time and time again.

The failure of UNLV’s defense to get stops on third down enabled Northern Illinois to put together three touchdown drives of more than 10 plays in the first half and build a 21-5 lead at the break. The Huskies came out with a 10-play TD drive to open the third quarter, as well.

It’s always disconcerting for a defense to allow third-down conversions, but some are even bigger than others. Northern Illinois’ second touchdown came on a third-and-10 play from the UNLV 12. The fourth score was on a third-and-four, also from the 12.

If the Rebels are able to hold on either or both plays, Northern Illinois has to settle for field goals and the game changes significantly.

Another third-down conversion late in the game may have been even more crippling to UNLV’s hopes.

The Huskies were trying to work on the clock and protect a 41-34 lead with just less than three minutes remaining and faced a third-and-nine at the UNLV 39. Drew Hare found a wide open Aregeros Turner breaking across the middle of the field for a 13-yard gain and a first down.

Four plays later, Northern Illinois sealed the game with a 2-yard touchdown run by Cameron Stingily.

It was the story of the game.

The Huskies were especially impressive on third downs in the first half when they converted 9 of 10.

UNLV finished the game a very respectable 8 of 17 offensively, but Northern Illinois’ 79 percent success rate was off the charts good.

That’s a tough number to overcome.

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