UTSA came into Saturday’s game undefeated while UNLV looked to win its first game of the season. When the final whistle blew those records remained the same—UTSA is now 5-0 while UNLV is 0-5. Even so, this game was anything but a blowout. The UNLV Rebels matched UTSA’s energy and intensity, and the teams traded blows early on before the Roadrunners began to pull away.
Saturday’s game made clear that UNLV is not a typical winless team. The Rebels showed they can compete despite their record, and it took a strong defensive effort for UTSA to walk out of the Alamodome with a victory. Both teams have a lot they can build for the rest of the 2021 season.
Here are three takeaways from UTSA’s victory over UNLV.
The first half was a relatively close game
UTSA took a 17-10 halftime lead, but it was clear that UNLV was competing with UTSA on all levels when the teams went into halftime.
In the first quarter UTSA scored on a 9-yard pass to wide receiver Joshua Cephus and UNLV immediately responded with its own touchdown pass, a 63-yard bomb to wide receiver Steve Jenkins. Then, UNLV effortlessly marched downfield on its next possession before settling for a 34-yard field goal and took a 10-7 lead.
Even after UTSA tied the game up on its next possession, UNLV began marching downfield again before throwing an interception and giving UTSA a chance to take the lead. UTSA would do just that, scoring on a 1-yard run from running back Sincere McCormick, but it took a conversion on fourth down in the redzone to do it.
Despite the 17-10 lead it felt like both teams were getting what they wanted on offense. Both teams sustained long drives and scored but both teams also let a lot of opportunities get away from them. By the time the first half ended, UNLV had accumulated 193 total yards to UTSA’s 270 total yards but was matching UTSA’s passing game with 162 yards to UTSA’s 194 yards. UNLV likely felt this game was well within reason to win.
UNLV has their starting quarterback
Freshman quarterback Cameron Friel started this game in place of Doug Brumfield, who injured his knee against Fresno State last week. Saturday made clear that Friel is more than capable of leading the UNLV Rebels for the rest of the season.
Friel finished the game with 307 yards, threw one touchdown, and two interceptions. It wasn’t the cleanest game on the stat sheet, and Friel was sacked six times, but he was poised throughout the game and made big plays all night long. Friel looked comfortable commanding the offense and when his offensive line gave him time to throw, he made the Roadrunners’ defense pay.
UNLV will need Friel to play like he did Saturday if the Rebels want to stay competitive during conference play. If Friel can remain healthy it sure seems probable that he will do just that.
Turnovers were the difference for UTSA’s defense
UTSA’s run defense once again kept a team to under 100 yards rushing, holding UNLV to only 35 yards. But the Roadrunners’ pass defense was especially porous, especially against UNLV’s screen passes, giving up over 350 yards through the air. It was the second game in as many weeks that UTSA’s pass defense gave up over 300 yards passing, and it was the most yards passing that UTSA has given up all season.
If UTSA’s “bend-don’t-break” defense was going to show up, then it needed to force turnovers. The defense did exactly that, forcing five total turnovers to deny UNLV opportunities to score. Two of those turnovers were stops on fourth down and both came when UNLV was in field goal range. UTSA also forced two interceptions and one fumble; UTSA scored twice off the turnovers and would have scored three times had kicker Hunter Duplessis not missed a 33-yard field goal attempt. Considering that the final score was only a 7-point difference, these turnovers were key for UTSA to pull out the win.
Both teams have adjustments they can make going forward to find success in conference play. For UNLV, the Rebels need Friel to stay healthy and the team needs to reduce its turnovers. For UTSA, the Roadrunners need to play better on pass defense and continue to open the offense up through the air to give McCormick the opportunities he needs to play like the all-conference running back that he is.
UNLV will face conference opponent Utah State at home next Saturday at 5:00 PM (MT). UTSA goes on the road to play conference opponent Western Kentucky next Saturday at 6:00 PM (CT).