Inexperience will be the name of the game when the Arizona Wildcats and the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels face off in Tucson on Friday night. Both teams will be starting inexperienced players at quarterback and running back, which could make for a shaky night.
The inexperience hinders UNLV more than the Wildcats, as the road environment can make it tough on junior college transfer Blake Decker. The junior won the starting job over incumbent Nick Sherry, who was chased from the game against the Wildcats last season.
Decker won the job after enrolling in the spring, following an impressive performance at Scottsdale Community College, where he completed 269 passes for 4,241 yards and 47 touchdowns. He is also nifty with his feet and can get a first down with his legs when necessary.
Lining up behind Decker will be Keith Whitely. A true sophomore, Whitely is getting the start, despite only having ten carries a year ago. He rushed for 57 yards on those ten touches, but was kept out of the end zone. Whitely also serves as the team’s punt and kickoff returner.
The sophomore won’t be the only one getting carries for the Rebels. Junior tailback David Greene will likely get a handful of reps as well. After starting his career at linebacker, Greene was mostly regulated to special teams work before making the switch to offense.
The biggest threat for the Wildcats will be senior wide receiver Devante Davis. Named to multiple preseason award watch-lists, Davis caught 14 touchdown passes last season and amassed 1,290 yards through the air. He currently sits at tenth on the UNLV all-time receivers list with 2,186 yards receiving, just 1,309 behind the leader Ryan Wolfe.
Arizona’s challenge for the game will be to slow down Davis and try to limit his touches. This can be done by pressuring Decker early in the game, as well as getting physical in the passing lanes. If Davis can get frustrated early on, it will help the Wildcats shut down the Rebels’ offense.
It won’t be easy to get pressure on Decker. In addition to Arizona having to replace multiple members on defense, the Rebels return four of five starters on the offensive line. Brett Boyko, Robert Waterman, Nick Gstrein, and Andrew Oberg all started at their respective positions last season. Brian Roth is the lone man out, but he did see action in all but one game last year.
Players to Watch:
#18, WR Marcus Sullivan: Davis is the obvious threat and that is why he isn’t here. Arizona will be sure to give plenty of attention Davis, but will that open up some room for Sullivan, who was second in receiving yards last year?
#5, QB Blake Decker: It is always difficult to enter your first college game on the road, so Decker may have trouble keeping his composure. If he does keep his composure, and can connect with Davis, UNLV’s offense may have some wheels.
Keys to the Game:
1. Contain Davis: The senior receiver is one of the best that the Wildcats will see this season, but the defense has also been going up against Austin Hill, Cayleb Jones, and DaVonte’ Neal all summer and fall. Davis will get his touches, but the key will be whether or not Arizona can limit what he does with them.
2. Force an early turnover: Rich Rodriguez is 9-0 at Arizona when winning the turnover battle. Forcing an early interception or fumble would create some added pressure on the inexperienced backfield of the Rebels.
3. Lose the jitters: The first game of the season means the first start for several members of the Wildcats’ defense. It will be important for them to get settled in quickly and limit the number of early mistakes.