UNLV defense must find way to nail Carpenter

If UNLV figured to have one advantage Saturday night against 15th-ranked Arizona State — other than hoping the Sun Devils are looking ahead to next week’s showdown against No. 2 Georgia — it would be the ability to get to quarterback Rudy Carpenter.

Arizona State not only gave up 55 sacks last season, worst in the Pacific-10 Conference, but a young and inexperienced line was put in charge of protecting Carpenter this year.

Pressuring Carpenter, however, hasn’t been so easy for opposing defenses. And it probably won’t be so simple for the Rebels in Saturday’s 7 p.m. game.

Carpenter, a senior, is getting rid of the football much quicker, and the results are clear. He was sacked just three times in the team’s first two games, and he completed 76.6 percent of his passes for 733 yards.

“Rudy Carpenter’s a big-time quarterback,” UNLV coach Mike Sanford said.

UNLV will have to be careful how it defends Carpenter. Rebels defensive coordinator Dennis Therrell referred to Arizona State as “a power-throwing team” that likes to test defenses downfield.

“And if you start pressuring (Carpenter), then all of a sudden they go three steps and they pick you or run a slant, and their receivers can run off and hide,” Therrell said.

It starts with Carpenter, who showed last season he could take a shot and come right back. The 6-foot-3-inch, 225-pound quarterback passed for 3,202 yards and 25 touchdowns, despite all those body slams from linebackers.

He is in line to break passing records at a school that has produced some notable quarterbacks, most recently Jake Plummer. Carpenter, barring injury, should by season’s end become Arizona State’s career leader in yards passing, touchdowns thrown and completions.

His path to reaching those marks is being made smoother by an inexperienced offensive line that has blocked better than expected. That group had the daunting task of replacing linemen who had a combined 127 career starts.

“You can’t power rush these guys,” said UNLV defensive tackle Martin Tevaseu, a former Sun Devil. “That’s what they want us to do. We’ve got to stay on the edge and work extra hard to get there.”

Carpenter has provided his linemen a major assist by delivering passes quicker than he did last season.

It’s something else for defenses to think about it. They no longer can simply tee off.

“We think they’ll still blitz and come after us,” Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson said. “It kind of depends on how we handle it during a game. If we handle it, people will back off and come up with a different plan. So far, we’ve handled it. But there are going to be games that people get to him.”

UNLV needs to make this one of those games, whether it’s through pressure from the front four or a series of blitzes. Otherwise, it could be the type of night that gives cornerbacks nervous tics.

Carpenter goes into each week expecting opposing defenses to take their chances.

“Usually when you can (pressure), the quarterback makes bad decisions, which did happen to me once last week (against Stanford),” Carpenter told reporters this week. “You hit the quarterback, you can wear him down and make him tired, and a lot of times quarterbacks don’t want to stand in there and keep doing that.

“Stanford did a good job, but our offensive line did a good job, as well. I think last year I was a little bit more emotional, and I think they felt that if they could get to me that I would react, and maybe they could just get under my skin a little bit and disrupt me. In my opinion, it didn’t really work on Saturday.”

Obviously not. Carpenter threw for 345 yards and three touchdowns in the 41-17 victory. He was sacked twice.

UNLV’s best hope might be for Arizona State to look ahead to next week’s game against Georgia. That game is sold out — tickets remain for UNLV — and fans at the Stanford game held “BRING ON GEORGIA” signs.

Erickson said his players weren’t ignorant of the challenge beyond this week, but they weren’t looking past the Rebels, either.

“They know the schedule,” Erickson said. “They know the reality of what’s going on. They enjoy playing the game of football and they’re competitors, and we’ll have our hands full.”

• PILI ILL — UNLV starting defensive end Thor Pili did not practice Wednesday because of a stomach and upper respiratory illness. Sanford said he would have a better idea today if Pili will play Saturday.

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914.

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