MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Sometimes things show up on video tape that gets a football coach's attention. Such was the case last Saturday during UNLV’s 44-26 loss to 21st-ranked Nevada.
On one particular play, UNLV quarterback Omar Clayton was blindsided by a Nevada cornerback on a fire blitz and appeared to be seriously injured. But Clayton got up, somehow pulled himself together, and later was able to lead his team down the field and into the end zone. Twice during his Tuesday afternoon news conference, West Virginia coach Bill Stewart pointed to that play as an example of Clayton’s impressive toughness.
“I saw him take a shot and I don’t know how he’s still walking,” said Stewart. “He is tough. He hung in there and he’s a heck of a quarterback.”
Clayton has played well this year despite UNLV’s 1-4 record against a very difficult schedule. In five games - including three against teams in this week’s AP Top 25 in Wisconsin, Utah and Nevada - the senior has completed 55 of 104 passes for 748 yards and five touchdowns. He threw for 214 yards and rushed for a team-high 48 yards in last week’s loss to Nevada, and contributed 217 yards passing in a 38-10 loss to No. 10 Utah.
The senior completed passes to eight different receivers with three TDs in UNLV’s 45-10 win over New Mexico, and he ran for a team-high 59 yards in the opener against Wisconsin. Clayton moved into third place on UNLV’s all-time passing chart (the top spot is occupied by ex-NFL standout Randall Cunningham) against Nevada, and he is the only QB in school history to pass for 300 yards and run for at least 100 in the same game against Colorado State in 2007.
Clayton is one of seven seniors first-year UNLV coach Bobby Hauck is playing on offense this year. Hauck, who has won more than 80 percent of his games at I-AA Montana including four straight 10-plus-win seasons from 2006-09, has taken over a Rebel program that has fallen on hard times since 2000 when John Robinson led them to an 8-5 record and a Las Vegas Bowl appearance. In the last 10 years, UNLV has had only one .500 season (2003) and has lost 47 games since 2005. But Stewart believes it’s just a matter of time before Hauck gets things rolling at UNLV - and he hopes it doesn’t start this weekend in Morgantown.
“He is on track to be a great one and I like what he’s doing with his team,” said Stewart.
“When you’re trying to build things, it’s difficult to play the type of schedule we’ve played,” added Hauck. “It’s physically hard on a team, that’s for sure.”
Phillip Payne (23 catches for 389 yards and two touchdowns) and Michael Johnson (23 catches for 306 yards and three touchdowns) are two very good options for UNLV at wide receiver. Payne is the bigger of the two (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) with 12 of his 16 career touchdown catches coming in the red zone, while Johnson became the first Rebel receiver in 14 years to have three touchdown catches in a single game two weeks ago against New Mexico. Johnson has caught 68 career passes for 793 yards and four scores.
“I like their skill guys a lot,” said Stewart.
UNLV hasn’t gotten much from its running game so far this year, senior Channing Trotter leading the Rebels with 153 yards and a touchdown, but Stewart said he likes Trotter’s size and toughness.
The UNLV offense has scored 71 points in its last two games against New Mexico and Nevada, which is one of UNLV’s biggest rivals.
“Coming off a rivalry game, whether you win or lose, it’s always hard to get back to work and play well,” Hauck admitted. “That’s typical and that’s one of the pitfalls of playing a rivalry game in the middle of the year. We need to focus on West Virginia. The goal for us will be to improve and play our best game back in Morgantown.”
Defensively, the Rebels utilize a 4-3 alignment with excellent size up front in 315-pound senior defensive tackle Isaako Aaitui and 275-pound senior defensive end Preston Brooks.
“They’re big and strong inside,” noted Mountaineer offensive coordinator Jeff Mullen. “They’ve got a couple of defensive tackles that are very, very strong and very, very big, and they play really hard.”
Middle linebacker Ronnie Paulo is the UNLV’s leading tackler with 36 stops, while junior cornerback Will Chandler is one of the top playmaking secondary players in the country with four interceptions and six total takeaways.
Chandler had an interception and an 82-yard fumble return in the opener against Wisconsin and enters Saturday’s game with picks in each of his last three games against Idaho, New Mexico and Nevada. Daniel Mareko and strong side linebacker Calvin Randleman lead the Rebels with three tackles for losses each; Randleman is one of three UNLV players with 1 ½ sacks so far this year.
“Their linebackers are aggressive and their cover guys can really cover,” said Mullen.
Of the teams UNLV has faced this year, Mullen said Wisconsin and Nevada do certain things similar to what West Virginia does offensively.
“We strike a pretty good balance so I think it’s good to see some of the power stuff, some of the spread stuff and some of the option stuff that Utah has done. I think all three of those game tapes helped us, as did New Mexico,” said Mullen.
The UNLV defense has been susceptible to the run this year, allowing 203.8 yards per game and 5.0 yards per carry, but West Virginia’s top ground gainer Noel Devine has been hobbled with a bruised foot that limited him to a season-low 37 yards in a 20-14 loss at LSU on Sept. 25.
“Noel is doing well - I’m not going to say great because I won’t know that until Saturday in warm-ups,” Stewart said. “He is trying to get better but he has a bone bruise under his toe and when he pivots it aches.”
Besides Devine, West Virginia has had an opportunity to get some of its other walking wounded healed up after and idle weekend last Saturday.
Stewart said left guard Josh Jenkins and tight end Tyler Urban, both nursing knee injuries, are improving but he will wait until the end of the week to determine how much they will be able to play on Saturday.
Quarterback Geno Smith, who threw for more than 200 yards in each of his first three games, is looking to bounce back after throwing for just 119 yards against LSU’s nationally ranked defense. Despite his season-low passing effort, Smith is still second in the Big East averaging 229.8 yards per game and third in the conference with a 144.5 passer rating.
Smith threw for a career-high 316 yards in West Virginia’s 24-21 come-from-behind victory at Marshall and added 268 yards and four TDs in the Mountaineers’ 31-17 win over Maryland.
Tavon Austin (24), Jock Sanders (24), Noel Devine (15) and Stedman Bailey (10) have already reached double figures in catches through four games, while Devine remains the team’s top rusher with 391 yards and two touchdowns on 87 carries.
“He has the ability to make people look silly in the open field and go the distance on every play,” said Hauck of Devine. “He’s special; I’m going to assume he’ll play.”
West Virginia ranks eighth in the country in total defense giving up just 249.2 yards per game and the Mountaineers are also ranked among the nation’s top 20 in run defense (10th), scoring defense (12th) and pass defense (20th).
“They’re one of the top defenses, statistically, in the country right now,” said Hauck. “They’ve got some really good-looking kids. Their safety, (Robert) Sands, is an impressive guy. Their linebackers really go and their nose is really good. They do some things that are problematic on defense; it’s a structure different than what we’ve seen to date.”
Hauck said his team will make the trip east one day earlier than normal on Thursday to get better acclimated to the time change.
“Certainly travel is difficult, especially when you go west to east,” he explained. “They’re three time zones away. There are some things that play into making this a hard game. The number one thing is that they’re pretty darn good, too.”
As of Wednesday afternoon, there are still tickets remaining for Saturday’s game and can be ordered by calling toll-free 1-800-WVU GAME or by logging on to WVUGAME.com. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. and the contest will be televised on the Big East Network. ESPN3.com will also carry the game nationally.
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