Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021 | 2 a.m.
The theme of this week for UNLV football is growth.
In his weekly press conference, head coach Marcus Arroyo preached getting better across the board after the scarlet and gray fell to Eastern Washington in double overtime to open the season.
“Week 2 is a great week for growth in a lot of ways,” Arroyo said. “I think there’s going to be great gains from Week 1 to Week 2.”
The players have dutifully echoed that message.
“The coaches always tell us that the biggest growth comes between Week 1 and Week 2,” senior linebacker Austin Ajiake said. “We’re just beginning to show what we’re capable of. It’s looking to be a big year for the defense and I’m excited to be a part of it.”
That’s all well and good. The problem is that growth — even if it comes in leaps and bounds — may not be evident on the scoreboard on Saturday.
Nine days after losing to an FCS-level team, UNLV will travel to Tempe to take on Arizona State, which is 1-0 and ranked No. 23 in the AP Poll. The sports books don’t expect much of a contest, setting UNLV as a 33-point underdog.
To view it through a realistic lens, there’s a good chance UNLV could play much better on Saturday than it did in Week 1 and still get blown out by the Sun Devils.
UNLV got a lot of breaks against Eastern Washington. The defense forced two turnovers and the special teams unit recorded a takeaway on a fumbled kickoff (which led directly to a UNLV touchdown on the next play), and Eastern Washington missed three field goals (including a 32-yarder that would have ended the game in regulation).
Arizona State is unlikely to make the kind of mistakes that allowed UNLV to hang around against Eastern Washington. That means the scarlet and gray will have to play exponentially better in order to compete.
One particular area in which Arroyo wants to see growth is consistency from his pass catchers. He charted seven drops from UNLV receivers in Week 1, with some of them coming in crucial situations.
Sophomore Doug Brumfield, who took over from Justin Rogers in the third quarter and will start at ASU, throws the ball with more velocity than Rogers, but Arroyo said that’s no excuse for the receiving corps to exchange their gloves for frying pans.
“We have to catch the ball,” Arroyo said. “There was too many. Seven drops was one of the drive-killers that showed up for us, especially in critical moments of the game. We talked about it and owned it and what we need to get done, that’s one of the examples of things we can get better at.”
Aside from the dropped passes and some other pointed critiques, Arroyo has tried to instill confidence in his squad heading into Saturday.
“It’s almost impossible to not acknowledge the growth and good stuff that we saw [in Week 1],” Arroyo said. “We really do home in on that, because that good stuff is worth celebrating for our group.”
The players have picked up on that attitude. They may be heading to Arizona as nearly five-touchdown underdogs, but as Utah State and Montana and, yes, Eastern Washington proved last week, there’s no sure thing in college football.
“The good thing about college football is every game is winnable,” Ajiake said. “You saw that last weekend with a bunch of upsets, so we go into every game thinking that we have a chance and believing that we do have a chance.”