LOGAN — Even though his team was wearing red and white, Mike Sanford's UNLV offense didn't exactly resemble Utah's high-octane offense of the past two years Saturday night at Romney Stadium.
The Rebels' offense sputtered and stumbled for most of the night in a disappointing 31-24 loss to Utah State.
The Rebels actually outgained the Aggies by more than 100 yards, 387 to 283, but made too many errors to let one of their best chances for a win this year slip away.
"It's a devastating loss, very difficult to swallow," Sanford said. "We didn't make the critical plays we needed to at the critical times. That's the bottom line."
Sanford was back in Utah for the first time in a football capacity since abruptly leaving the state last December when he accepted the Rebels' head coaching job.
He had been the mastermind, along with Urban Meyer, of the Utah spread offense that received so much attention the last two years when the Utes went 22-2 and won the Fiesta Bowl.
After taking over for John Robinson, Sanford immediately instituted an offense similar to the one he employed at Utah and called it the "Shotgun Spread."
Saturday night the Rebel offense looked similar to Utah's offense with its five-receiver sets, shovel passes and option runs, but it didn't operate with the same smoothness as the Utes. Perhaps that's because Shane Steichen, Erick Jackson and Tremayne Kirkland are not Alex Smith, Marty Johnson and Paris Warren.
Like Gary Crowton used to do for BYU, Sanford calls his own offensive plays for the Rebels. He roamed the sidelines Saturday night in his black jacket wearing a headset and carrying a laminated play sheet.
His Rebels were coming off a disappointing loss to Nevada when the Rebels struggled to score 14 points as Steichen's only completed 7 of 25 cpasses for 58 yards.
However against the Aggies, the Rebels started quickly, scoring less than a minute into the game on just three plays with Jackson scampering 19 yards for the score.
After that, the Rebels' offense went into hibernation, managing three points the rest of the half. Even though the Rebels had 16 first downs to seven for USU and nearly doubled the Aggies' total offense output (227 to 124), they trailed 16-10 thanks to a series of errors.
The special teams allowed a 92-yard kickoff return by Tony Pennyman, and a blocked field goal set up an Aggie field goal. Then with 2:10 left, Steichen, who played most of the game with a broken finger on his left hand, made a poor pitch that was recovered by Matt Wiser, leading to a USU touchdown.
"We've got to get better at special teams," Sanford said. "I can cite the kickoff return, the blocked field goal and several long returns."
Just before the half, the Rebels executed their two-minute drill almost to perfection only to see Steichen's pass picked off by Jarrett Bush in the end zone in the final seconds.
In the second half, the Rebel offense finally got rolling and scored a pair of touchdowns in the third quarter to take a 24-16 lead. But the defense couldn't hold and the Aggies prevailed.
Although the schedule looks daunting for the 1-3 Rebels, Sanford is staying positive
"We've got a lot of football left to play," he said. "We'll fight back."