UNLV makes strides on defense

FORT COLLINS, Colo. – The statistics still aren’t pretty, and good luck finding anyone willing to shower UNLV’s defense with compliments.

Something, though, changed the past two weeks.

UNLV did a much better job keeping opponents out of the end zone, giving up 31 combined points in those two games after allowing a 35.5 average the first eight weeks.

What that means going forward, including at Colorado State at 4 p.m. PST today, is uncertain, but it’s a trend the Rebels gladly will embrace.

“I think we’re getting better,” defensive coordinator J.D. Williams said. “We kind of got hit with the injury bug. If we can beat that, I think we’ll show great promise.”

UNLV (2-8, 2-3 Mountain West Conference) will try to win back-to-back games for the first time since defeating New Mexico and Wyoming in 2008. The Rebels also will attempt to break a 20-game road losing streak, and they are 1-point favorites over the Rams (2-7, 1-4).

Conditions tonight could be difficult for both teams. Temperatures are expected to be in the 20s, with a good chance of snow.

Colorado State brings an improving offense into the game, scoring 73 points against Hawaii and Wyoming the past two weeks to raise its scoring average to 20.3.

But injuries have forced the Rams to use three quarterbacks, and redshirt freshman Conner Smith will start. He has completed 41 of 62 passes for 606 yards and three touchdowns, with four interceptions.

He has the highest passing average among Rams quarterbacks, at 202 yards per game. That could be trouble for a banged-up UNLV secondary that allows a 237.2-yard average.

But the Rebels haven’t shined against the run, either, giving up 275 yards two weeks ago at San Diego State and 307 on Saturday to New Mexico.

Those games, however, represented improvement for UNLV’s defense.

San Diego State scored 24 points, giving the Rebels’ then-struggling offense a chance to steal a victory. The Aztecs averaged 36.3 points against other teams.

New Mexico scored seven points, the fewest by a UNLV opponent in five years. The Lobos averaged 29 points against other opponents.

“Everyone’s confidence has increased,” UNLV linebacker John Lotulelei said. “Everyone’s up, and everyone’s ready to play.”

Coach Bobby Hauck said much of the improvement is due to the younger players progressing.

“They’re recognizing (better); they’re closing things up quicker,” Hauck said. “We’re getting off blocks; we’re tackling pretty well. That’s the big deal.”

Colorado State coach Jim McElwain has seen general improvement from the Rebels, including progress defensively.

“They’ve got good personnel in there now, and the guys are playing together,” McElwain said. “They’ve got big, physical guys up front that are going to give us some issues. With that, they’ve got some size at safety with some speed.

“I see what they’re doing plan-wise, and they’re very sound.”

Even so, UNLV still has a fair distance to travel before it can be considered even a mediocre defense.

The Rebels allow 460.1 yards per game. It’s their highest mark since 1996, when they gave up an average of 543 yards.

Somehow the Rebels haven’t let those yards translate into many points.

They have lowered their defensive scoring average from last season’s beyond awful 40.4 mark to 31.5. UNLV’s current average is the lowest since allowing 28.6 points in 2007.

“You’ve got to take chances,” Williams said. “You’ve got kind of a depleted secondary, so you want to be more aggressive up front. With yardage, sure, you want to hold everybody to zero yards as much as possible, but you’ve got to be concerned about the win more than anything else.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.

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