WSU Vs. UNLV Football Preview: Sidney Hodge And The Rebels Defense

UNLV cornerback Sidney Hodge did not intercept this pass. How do we know? He has no career interceptions.

The Washington State Cougars are heading to Vegas on Friday evening to take on the UNLV Rebels at 6 p.m. PT on ESPN, and WSU fans are hoping to see more production on the offensive side of the ball.

The Cougar offense had one of its best days ever when they faced the Rebels a year ago, putting up 59 points to go with 610 total yards, which included 471 yards passing on just 38 attempts. That was good for an absurd 12.4 yards per attempt.

The UNLV defense may not be as bad as the 2011 version, but they do still have many flaws, especially in the passing game. MInnesota racked up 269 yards passing on just 30 attempts, which is a less-absurd, but still excellent nine yards per pass.

As expected, the Rebel pass defense was much improved against Northern Arizona. Not sure if much can be inferred from that. NAU is an FCS team and they had a guy getting his second start ever, who was pretty bad against Arizona State the week before.

There are four guys on the Rebel defense that started the game against WSU last season and the game against NAU last week, so they have gone through quite an overhaul. That makes the defense a bit of an unknown, but judging by their early performances, they don't seem markedly improved.

The Air Raid offense is famous for sending chills down the spines and yellow liquid down the thighs of the defensive backfield, and that's why the preview always begins with the secondary.

Defensive Backs

The UNLV secondary returns just one regular starter from 2011 in junior cornerback Sidney Hodge. The Las Vegas native is one of the leaders on defense and was named to Lindy's Preseason Second Team All-Mountain West, as well as honorable mention in Phil Steele's preview.

Hodge has recorded eight tackles, a tackle for loss, and two pass breakups on the year. Interestingly, he does not have an interception in his college career. He played against the Cougs last season, but was wearing a different number, and this is why:

Chosen this year to be the third player to wear "Battle Born Jersey No. 36 -- complete with a patch of the state flag on the back -- is worn by a Nevadan who best exemplifies the Battle Born spirit of his state, which was the 36th state to join the union, and the toughness and pride of Rebel Football

Seems like a pretty cool tradition. Although he used to be No. 23, which is one of the coolest jersey numbers of all time.

At the opposite cornerback spot is Kenneth Penny. The 5'11, 170-pound sophomore is getting his first chance at extended playing time, and has six tackles with two pass breakups through two games.

Peni Vea gets the start at free safety. The redshirt freshman leads the team in tackles with 18. He was the defensive scout team player of the year in 2011 for UNLV, and was listed as the long snapper after spring camp. At 6'1, 200 pounds, that seems like a brave position for the young man.

Tajh Hasson is the strong safey. He started one game a season ago, and that was against Washington State. He has six tackles, a pass breakup, and two TFL on the year.

As a group, the secondary doesn't seem to take many chances on errant passes. Defensive backs intercepted just five passes in 2011, and have yet to pick one off this season. They might be more aggressive when it comes to getting into the offensive backfield, as the secondary has tallied two TFL on the year so far.

With a lot of inexperience, this seems like a unit that the Cougars can and should exploit. Hopefully this is finally the game when the passing attack can put up the numbers that everyone has come to expect from a Mike Leach offense.

Click the jump for previews of the linebackers and defensive line.

Linebackers

The Rebels run a 4-3 base defense and all three starting linebackers this year come back after getting significant playing time in 2011.

The best of the bunch might be senior John Lotulelei. The junior college transfer emerged as a starter late last season and received preseason accolades from Lindy's, who placed him on the All-Mountain West Second Team.

Lotulelei was third on the team in tackles last season with 60, and is second in 2012 with 17 after two games. Don't expect him to be blitzing much, as he posted just three TFL and no sacks a year ago.

The most experienced of the group is junior Tani Maka. He started eight games last year, recording 54 tackles, three TFL, and two interceptions. Maka was originally a three-star recruit headed for UCLA, but never attended the school.

Tim Hasson, half-brother of Tajh, is the feel-good story of the unit. He was an invited walk-on that has since earned a scholarship. He started for most of the last half of 2011, recording 46 tackles and one TFL.

There is some talent in this UNLV linebacking corps. It appears they aren't used to bring pressure all that often, as linebackers didn't put up many sacks or tackles for loss last year. Expect to see more of what WSU has seen through the first two games, with the Rebels likely playing straight up and dropping at least seven guys into coverage.

Defensive Line

The Rebels may have suffered their biggest loss from 2011 when defensive end James Dunlap graduated. Dunlap finished with 14.5 TFL, the same amount as Seahawks' first-round pick Bruce Irvin.

Alex Klorman is the lone returning starter up front. The 6'2, 285-pound defensive tackle recorded 21 tackles, 2 TFL, and a sack last season while playing in all 12 games. He has five tackles and 0.5 TFL this year.

The other tackle position will be manned by 6'3, 290-pound Tyler Gaston. The junior was a reserve a season ago, but did play in all 21 games, recording 21 tackles and two sacks. He has one TFL and four tackles through two games.

The starting ends could change, and they seem to rotate out frequently. Parker Holloway and Jordan Sparkman got the call to start against Northern Arizona.

Holloway is a transfer out of Trinity Valley Community College, which is most famous for being listed on the back of former Seattle Supersonic Shawn Kemp's basketball cards. Holloway has recorded one TFL and four tackles.

Sparkman is a converted tight end who played mostly on special teams in 2011. He's got nine tackles through two games, and 0.5 TFL. Nine tackles for a defensive end is a pretty high number, it wouldn't be surprising if he drops back into coverage on stunts and blitzes often.

The other end that will see significant playing time, most likely on passing downs, is junior James Boyd. The 6'5, 255-pound Boyd was highly recruited out of high school, listed as a four-star athlete. He spent his freshman season at USC. After playing a year in junior college, he came to UNLV as a quarterback in spring camp.

His quarterbacking days didn't last long, and he was moved to defensive end. The move has been successful so far, as Boyd as eight tackles and two sacks through two games.

The two junior college transfers, Boyd and Holloway, seem to be the one's that will make the biggest impact against WSU on Saturday. Boyd is the most physically-gifted player on the entire defense, and the fact that he didn't start last game seems to be more of a formality. He is in there on plenty of snaps, and he makes plays.

The tackles, Klorman and Gaston, seem a bit undersized and ineffective, and could be handled by even a struggling Cougar offensive line.

The UNLV defense doesn't seem all that improved over a season ago. Playing at home will certainly help, even if half the crowd is WSU fans, so don't expect 59 points and 610 yards.

However, if the Cougars struggle once again to move the ball consistently against this Rebels team, it will show they still have a long way to go to match the level of Leach's teams at Texas Tech, Oklahoma, and Kentucky.

Stats and info come from cfbstats.com and UNLV's official site. Check out the UNLV offensive preview from Wednesday. Stick with CougCenter all week for the most comprehensive WSU football coverage around.

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