UNLV’s 4-3 defense has fighting chance with able bodies

The confidence of UNLV’s defense was so apparent against UNR on Sept. 27. The Rebels were flying to the football and delivering big hits.

But that was early in the game. Then they stopped.

UNR’s offense began making plays and turned a 17-7 deficit into a 49-27 victory.

The Rebels were back on their heels, and not just for the rest of the night. As it turned out, for the next month and a half the defense fell into a tailspin seemingly without end.

But UNLV’s old, aggressive 4-3 defense was back in force Saturday night, taking it to New Mexico in a 27-20 victory at Sam Boyd Stadium.

Defensive coordinator Dennis Therrell had a simple explanation for the unit’s resurgence: better health.

“We got the same people back and got the same calls we were able to run the first month,” he said.

UNLV, which hosts Wyoming at 6 p.m. Thursday, has at various points been without linebackers Ronnie Paulo and Beau Orth and defensive end Thor Pili.

“I keep telling everybody — and nobody understands — that for two weeks we had to run a 4-2-5 defense,” Therrell said. “We didn’t have our defense out there.

“For (other games), we had to cut down on the game plan, and probably for the first time since Iowa State (Sept. 20), we ran our defense (against New Mexico).”

That comfort level clearly helped the Rebels.

“It’s what they practiced all spring and all summer,” Therrell said. “It’s a little bit more comfortable for them, and they can understand where they fit. They play faster. They’re not thinking; they’re just reacting.”

A crucial example of that was cornerback Quinton Pointer’s 77-yard interception return in the second quarter. That kept the Lobos from possibly extending their lead to 21-3, and UNLV pulled to within 14-13 by halftime.

The Rebels’ confidence grew as the game progressed. Defensive end George Fa’avae blocked New Mexico tackle Byron Bell nearly into the quarterback on one play. Tackle Malo Taumua made two tackles for loss and seemed to spend as much in the Lobos’ backfield as New Mexico tailback Rodney Ferguson.

Linebackers Jason Beauchamp and Nate Carter had 16 and 10 tackles, respectively.

New Mexico finished with 370 yards, the fewest by a UNLV opponent since Iowa State gained 306.

Perhaps more importantly, the Rebels responded in the clutch, holding the Lobos to a field goal over their final three drives. It’s hard to believe it was the same defense that broke down late in close losses to Colorado State, Air Force and Brigham Young in consecutive October games.

“If we can make plays in the clutch, everybody will believe we can do it,” Taumua said.

That performance doesn’t guarantee anything, though. UNLV (4-6, 1-5 Mountain West) must build on that success when it plays Wyoming (4-6, 1-5).

But coming off a good performance certainly is more encouraging than trying to respond to a poor one.

“After a win,” Fa’avae said, “everything’s a lot better.”

• NOTES — As expected quarterback Omar Clayton (right knee ligament) will not play Thursday. Redshirt freshman Mike Clausen will get his second straight start. …

Wide receiver Phillip Payne and safety Lorenzo Bursey Jr. are doubtful with concussions. This is Payne’s second one this season. “It’s a concern,” coach Mike Sanford said.

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