UNLV Football: 2021 Season Recap
The Rebels took a few more lumps on their constructed path back to respectability, but the future remains bright in Las Vegas.
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Progress isn’t always linear.
UNLV Football: 2021 By The Numbers
Record: 2-10 (2-6 Mountain West) | Preseason SP+ ranking: 122 | Season-end SP+ ranking: 115 | FEI ranking: 107 | Net points per drive: -0.98 (107th) | Net available yards per drive: -16.1% (114th)
2021 Season Summary
Coming off of the strangeness of the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, expectations were relatively low for the UNLV Rebels last fall and, depending on your perspective, they either ended up exactly where you expected or were much better than the overall record would indicate.
On the one hand, Marcus Arroyo’s Rebels finished last in the West division yet again. On the other, the Rebels may have been one of the unluckiest teams anywhere in the country with a 0-6 record in games decided by eight or fewer points. More importantly, they won back-to-back games for the first time since the end of 2019, had their best finish by SP+ since 2018, and continued to see the fruits of their recruiting labors blossom on both sides of the ball.
What Went Right For the Rebels?
Given the injuries at the quarterback situation throughout the year, Arroyo and his offensive coaching staff deserve credit for getting the ball to the unit’s most talented player, Charles Williams, and getting out of the way. The “Chuck Wagon” set the program record for single-game carries (38) in UNLV’s win over Hawaii and became the first Rebels running back to average 20 carries per game since Tim Cornett in 2013, and he also surpassed Cornett for the school’s all-time rushing yards record.
More broadly, though, the story of the year was the team’s increased reliance on young talents who, despite the requisite growing pains, put the program in a good position from which it can build. Doug Brumfield and Mountain West freshman of the year Cameron Friel got nicked by injuries, but Brumfield’s mobility and Friel’s accuracy gave the offense life. Tiger Shanks and Leif Fautanu looked like up-and-coming talents on the offensive line, while linebacker Brennon Scott looked as advertised with a greater role late in the season and defensive backs Nohl Williams and Cameron Oliver gave the Rebels an interesting cornerback tandem.
There’s still a long way to go, of course, but consider that UNLV cut its net points per drive deficit essentially in half from 2020 and its net yards per play deficit from -2.64 to -0.96. Sometimes, the victories exist beyond the win column.
What Went wrong For the Rebels?
The team’s poor record in one-possession games can’t be entirely explained away by bad luck. For instance, conservative play calling was partially to blame for the loss to San Jose State while the losses against UTSA and Utah State, among others, were marred by turnovers. While their issues with giveaways weren’t as drastic as others in the conference, UNLV still had at least two turnovers in eight different games last season.
On defense, opponents had far too easy a time throwing the ball against the Rebels. They allowed a conference-high 69.7% completion rate and 8.3 yards per attempt (including a 13.4% rate of 20-yard pass plays allowed on 343 attempts), which undermined some solid work from a pass rush that ended up right around the national average (6.7%, 63rd overall) and a run defense that, other than the season-ending wipeout against Air Force, was often better than it seemed.
Interesting Statistics from 2021
- Steve Jenkins and Kyle Williams finished the year with 694 and 601 receiving yards, respectively, and became the first pair of UNLV pass catchers with at least 600 yards in a season since 2012 (Devante Davis and Marcus Sullivan).
- On defense, Jacoby Windmon and Brennon Scott became the first pair of Rebels players with at least ten tackles for loss in a year since 2003 (when it was actually a trio: Jamal Brimmer, Ryan Claridge, and Adam Seward).
- Daniel Gutierrez set the school record for most consecutive field goals made (16) and, at present, also holds the record as the program’s most accurate field goal kicker ever at 82.2%.
- The Rebels made big strides in avoiding penalties, racking up just 4.5 flags per game. That was the team’s lowest average since 2013.
Play of the year
To be perfectly honest, there were a few strong contenders here. Jacoby Windmon vaulting over a San Diego State running back on his way to a sack is one and Doug Brumfield’s touchdown leap against Arizona State is another, but the heads-up defensive play by cornerback Ricky Johnson to stymie a SDSU red zone threat is a real winner in our book.
Ricky Johnson intercepts Lucas Johnson in the red zone and the @unlvfootball fans are PUMPED! pic.twitter.com/XOWxq9si38
— CBS Sports Network (@CBSSportsNet) November 20, 2021
A brief look ahead to 2022
In broad terms, UNLV still looks well on the way toward their planned destination but they will need to find some answers for questions old and new — such as the long-lingering QB1 question, who’ll replace departed offensive coordinator Glenn Thomas, and who will pick up where Charles Williams left off in the running game — in order to keep things on track.
Williams might be the biggest player departure but he’s hardly the only one: Windmon left for Michigan State via the transfer portal, as has Justin Rogers, while offensive guard Julio Garcia and defensive tackle Kolo Uasike and others exhausted their eligibility and won’t be easy to replace in their own rights.
Thankfully, other than an October road trip to Notre Dame, this year’s non-conference schedule is much less rigorous: UNLV otherwise has home dates against Idaho State and North Texas and will travel to Cal. On paper, the Rebels should have at least a couple of decent chances to win at home in Mountain West play against rival Nevada and New Mexico, though the overall schedule remains pretty rigorous with Fresno State and Air Force also scheduled to visit Allegiant Stadium and trips to Hawaii and San Diego State on the ledger.