September 12, 2008

UNLV preview

Saturday's first ever meeting between Arizona State and UNLV will be considered by some of the team's fans -- as well as by some members of the local media, no doubt -- as simply a game that has to be played before the game against No. 2 Georgia on Sept. 20.

The bigger question, of course, is whether ASU's players will also get caught looking ahead to the Bulldogs.

Ultimately that's all the really matters.

For despite the fact that UNLV was tied at No. 22 Utah at halftime, the Rebels lost that game by a wide margin, 42-21, and likely aren't even on the level of the Stanford team that ASU easily beat last Saturday by a score of 41-17.

This is a UNLV that was picked to finish 9th (last) in the 2008 Mountain West Conference Media Poll and has not won more than two games in any single season since 2003. The Rebels are 4-38 over the last four seasons, including 4-27 in league play.

As much as it would seem the Sun Devils might have spent the last week in practice trying to keep their focus on the task at hand, several key members of the team have said their attention has not been prematurely diverted.

"That's one of the things Coach (Dennis) Erickson has done since he got here which is just really take one game at a time and one day at a time," quarterback Rudy Carpenter said. "I know it's cliché and everyone says it, but Coach Erickson really means it.

"Since he got here, whenever we break huddles or we get together after practice or after games we don't break out on 'Devils' or whatever, it's just always the next number, which this week [was] 'three.'

"So that's how we keep guys focused on the game that we're playing this week and not look ahead."

For Carpenter in particular, there is no sense looking ahead. Not when he has set a school record with 733 passing yards through the first two games of the season and has another mediocre defense immediately in his sights.

The Rebels are last in the Mountain West in scoring defense through two games, allowing 29.5 points and eight total touchdowns, and eighth in total defense, yielding 377 yards per game.

This is the type of opponent the Sun Devils should be able to exploit, and for Carpenter, it's another opportunity to put up big numbers, and perhaps even begin to inject himself into the Heisman Trophy discussion.

Carpenter is already on the Watch List for the Maxwell Award, given annually to the top player in college football; the Davey O'Brien award, given annually to the best quarterback in the country; the Unitas Golden Arm Award and the Walter Camp Foundation Player of the Year Award.

But despite the fact that he is No. 4 in passing yards and No. 2 in touchdowns among active players nationally, Carpenter has thus far been on the outside in when it comes to the talk surrounding the top Heisman Trophy candidates. This, even as he is guiding a Top-15 program that is coming off a 10-win campaign in 2007 and even has he ranks 5th in pass yards and 7th in passing efficiency through two games this season.

If there is something we've learned about Carpenter, he doesn't like to be overlooked. So it's safe bet he'll approach the UNLV game as another opportunity to get some of that national respect. And that could be a bad thing for the Rebels.

About UNLV

Head coach: Mike Sanford (fourth season)
2007 season: 2-10 (1-7)
2008 record: 1-1 (0-1)

Offense

The Rebels run a version of the spread offense they call the "Rebel Shotgun Spread." Sanford was offensive coordinator at Utah in 2005 under then-coach Urban Meyer when the team went 12-0 but that team had Alex Smith, a pro-style quarterback.

"What kind of runner your quarterback is dictates a lot of the things you do with the spread," Erickson said. "(Quarterback Omar Clayton) at UNLV is a good runner. They do a little more with him than they did with Smith at Utah."

Clayton may be more athletic than Smith was, but he's hardly a major threat to beat teams with his feet. He's rushed for a net of 15 yards on 12 carries through two games.

The player ASU does have to be aware of in the ground game is senior running back Frank Summers, a thick, 5-foot-10, 230-pounder who has rushed for 174 yards and two touchdowns on 37 carries this season. His strong start is following up on a 2007 season where he rushed for 928 yards

Summers, nicknamed "The Tank," is aided by the team's arguable strength, it's offensive line, which returns four starters (though one no longer is a first-team member) including: sophomore left tackle Matt Murphy was a first-team Freshman All-American last season; junior right guard Joe Hawley is an honors candidate who has moved from center; senior Johan Asiata moved inside to left guard after playing right tackle last season.

This game's outcome, however, will likely come down to UNLV's ability to present a balanced offense, with Clayton having success in the team's passing game. He's had quite a bit of success thus far, with 351 yards, four touchdown passes and a completion rate of 61 percent.

Clayton's primary targets are junior Ryan Wolfe (17 catches for 167 yards and two touchdowns, true freshmen Phillip Payne (seven catches for 112 yards and two scores), a former high school teammate of Lawrence Guy, and senior Casey Flair (seven catches for 85 yards).

Defense

Second-year linebackers coach Dennis Therrell took over the team's defensive coordinator position in the off-season and the Rebels run a base 4-3 defense that looks fairly standard.

The linebacking corps was perhaps the strength of the defense until Starr Fuimaono (knee) and Ronnie Paulo (lower leg bruise) went down against Utah and the game got away from the Rebles in the second half. SAM linebacker Fuimaono, arguably the team's top defensive player, is likely done for the year with a torn ACL. Paulo is expected to play, and he's the team leader with 16 tackles through the first two games. Fuimaono's replacement, Jason Beauchamp, is tied for second on the team with 15 tackles.

Up front, UNLV lost both starting defensive ends from a year ago, and the team has generated just one sack to this point, from linebacker Beauchamp. Defensive tackle Malo Taumua is undersized at 6-0, 270 pounds, but considered to be effective against the run. Martin Tevaseu, who signed with ASU in 2006 and practiced several weeks before leaving the program due to injury and weight-related issues, has re-emerged at UNLV, leaner and ready to take advantage of his ample potential. He will start ahead of 26 year-old senior Jacob Hales, who has a dislocated elbow and will likely be limited in the game, if he plays at all.

In the secondary, free safety Daryl Forte is a two-year starter and the team's most experienced player at the position. He is tied for second on the team with 15 tackles and he also has one of the team's two interceptions. Junior college transfer Terrance Lee is the starting free safety and senior Geoffery Howard is a rugged veteran cornerback, who will play opposite the speedy but inexperienced Quinton Pointer, a sophomore.

Quotable

"We're a team that has to focus every week against every opponent and if we don't, we're not going to win the game. Our players know that so they'll be prepared to play." -- Erickson

"We're a ways away from where we need to be We just got a lot of work to do. We're not near where we need to be to compete in our league. -- Erickson

"Even though we're 2-0, I think the mentality of the team right now, guys still feel like we have a lot of work to do and we can get a lot better. We have a lot of young guys, and you know they haven't played a whole lot, so I think they're anxious to keep on getting better, which is good. We haven't had that in the past. We have some young guys who really can play and are good and athletic and also very smart." -- Carpenter

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