After a record-setting performance against Hawaii, the first thing out of senior running back Charles Williams’ mouth was praise for his offensive line that helped him rush for 266 yards and three touchdowns in UNLV’s 27-13 win.
The Rebel offensive line has dealt with injuries and had to shift guys around. They are also fairly young, with a sophomore center, Leif Fautanu, and freshman right tackle, Tiger Shanks. Yet, with all the adversity the offensive line has been through, their performance has improved each week and helped UNLV get its first two wins of the season.
“They have just been improving every week,” Williams said. “You just see the little details they work on, just getting to the second level to the linebackers and making sure I get to the secondary.”
In the last two games, the Rebels have outgained their opponents by 273 yards and the offensive line has only allowed one sack during the two wins. The UNLV coaches have noticed the resiliency of the group.
“They did a great job,” head coach Marcus Arroyo said of the offensive line. “It says a lot about those guys believing in each other in the scheme coming together, Charles getting more comfortable with those guys and they threw a lot at us now there were a lot of different defensive looks. They tried everything and so I’m just proud of the way those guys identified some of that stuff and we ran the football the way we wanted to.”
Arroyo noted that with some of the injuries, some guys are not practicing during the week. They might get in a day or two of practice, but at times guys are not a full go until game day.
Not to be outdone, UNLV’s defense has held its opponents to under 17 points the last two games while forcing five turnovers. Opposing teams have also struggled on third down against the Rebels, as UNLV has only allowed six third down conversions on 28 attempts, and two big fourth down stops as well.
The Rebel defense has gone through its own injury battles, as 22 different Rebels have started on defense this season. At this point of the season, with players getting healthy and young guys getting more experience, there have been notable signs of improvement on the field for the defense.
“Communication overall has definitely improved through the last couple games, as well as we got a lot of young guys as well that are playing and being able to get everyone to mesh together,” senior linebacker Kylan Wilborn said. “It’s just like you’re not gonna throw everyone together. It takes time. And I think we’re starting to see the benefits of it.”
What has stood out in UNLV’s success on defense has been third and fourth down stops, many of which have come late in games. Wilborn said the entire defense enjoys those moments where they get tested, the entire crowd gets into it and where it “gets the juices flowing,” for everyone on the team.
Many times early in the season, the Rebel defense would break and allow several scoring drives to put a game out of reach or allow a late touchdown that ended UNLV’s chances of winning. With those experiences of losing games late or struggling in the second half against quality opponents, the Rebels have learned from their previous experiences and showed their improvements on the field.
“We’ve talked as a team, where we said those moments and those games will build and be great seeds for later in the future,” Arroyo said. “Well, we’re here that we’re here now and you saw some of that come to life this weekend where they played a complete game.”
For some on the UNLV football team, this will be their last home game with the program. On the roster there are 21 players listed as seniors, some could decide to come back depending on if they choose to use their extra year of eligibility from the COVID season last year.
Regardless of who stays or goes, this group of seniors has been through a huge transition of UNLV football with a new coach, stadium, practice facility, all in the ever-changing landscape of college football and having to deal with a season of COVID. Arroyo and everyone in the program know the importance of this group and the lasting impact they have made.
“These are our guys and we owe it to them to do it the right way,” Arroyo said. “And so their ability to be coached, their ability to identify with what we’re doing, and to carry the flag as a group is important. It’s important to the program. It’s important to them, they have to make it important to them and make it important to everybody else. And I think you do that by really being honest and authentic about this.”
And it’s not just the seniors that understand it’s a big week. Arroyo has emphasized to the younger players the importance of this week and that they have a responsibility to the seniors to perform well this week for them.
“You can get a lot of a family and a group when the rest of the group is tied together to that moment,” Arroyo said. “I started last night with young guys, I made sure the young guys understood that. You got to understand where these guys are on the tail end of it. And that it’s your obligation. It’s your responsibility, your accountability to these guys for what they put in to knock it out of the park this week.”
Williams, who Arroyo has praised for his coachability and leadership during the past two seasons, will play his last home game as a Rebel Friday night. He knows how important it is for him as a senior to lead the young players to make sure they can carry on what he and the other seniors have built.
“What we want to do now is keep the momentum going, keep it rolling for next season for these young dudes,” Williams said. “We want to put on for these young dudes and they are trying to send us off right but we got to do our part as seniors.”
UNLV’s Big Saturday
The Rebels’ first home win and taking home the golden pineapple was one of many highlights for UNLV Athletics last Saturday night.
Before the football game went final, both women’s basketball and volleyball won their games. The UNLV volleyball team, who are the reigning Mountain West champions, also clinched its spot in the MW volleyball championship tournament next week at the Cox Pavilion.
And after the win, Arroyo, along with many UNLV fans, made the trip over to the Thomas & Mack Center to see the Runnin’ Rebels defeat California 55-52. As Arroyo cheered on along with every UNLV fan, he knew the importance of nights like Saturday and what they mean for UNLV.
“That was awesome,” Arroyo said. “That was incredible, that’s the pageantry of college sports. When you can have all the major teams and everybody winning in that program, it’s gonna be a movement for your program. It’s a movement for your sport. It’s a movement for your city. It’s a move for the community, the alumni, recruiting, everything in all aspects.”
Arroyo came in right as Allegiant Stadium opened for UNLV football and the Raiders. The Las Vegas sports scene changed exponentially with the NFL coming to town. And with the city gaining national recognition as a sports town, he and everyone at UNLV knew the importance of having a high bar within their own programs to do their part in the Las Vegas sports community.
“That’s why I think the expectations in this building are so high, expectations I have for us, for myself, and for this group,” Arroyo said. “And the responsibility I want to have for the city and the alumni and the program is so high.”
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