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UNLV football:

Targeting penalty derails Rebels in attempt to upset UCLA at Rose Bowl


Associated Press

UCLA running back Soso Jamabo, left, scores a touchdown as UNLV defensive back Darius Mouton misses the tackle during the first half of a college football game, Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016, in Pasadena, Calif.

The Rebel Room

Going Back to Cali

Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer and reporters Case Keefer and Taylor Bern discuss the takeaways, if any, from UNLV football's 63-13 beatdown of Jackson State, preview the UCLA game and breakdown recent basketball signee Troy Baxter Jr.

It happened in an instant. By the time UNLV senior safety Kenny Keys got to his feet to celebrate what he thought was a great stop on third down, three flags were descending onto the Rose Bowl field.

After falling behind 28-7 in the first half, the Rebels battled back and trailed by a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Forget moral victories against a UCLA team that last year came into Sam Boyd Stadium and stomped the Rebels 37-3; an actual, certified W was within grasp. Until it wasn’t.

“It’s hard to jump up and down and yell about something like that, but that was the changing point of the game,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said after the Rebels’ 42-21 loss. “Third and 10, we’re getting the ball back, seven-point game, fourth quarter. All of a sudden, we have that and they get the first down and score. You’re chasing it after that.”

With just under 13 minutes left, UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen threw a deep pass to receiver Eldridge Massington. Keys read the play well, leading with his shoulder and hitting Massington right after the ball hit his hands. But Keys launched himself and clipped Massington’s facemask with the crown of his helmet, causing a whiplash that looked bad in live action and drew a penalty for targeting.

Per NCAA rules, Keys was ejected and will also miss the first half of next Saturday’s game at Central Michigan. Four plays later, UCLA took a 14-point lead, and UNLV’s ensuing three-and-out effectively ended the game before the Bruins topped it off with another long touchdown drive.

“A couple of years ago we would probably take that as a consolation victory or a moral victory, but we don’t think that way anymore. We expected to win tonight,” said junior quarterback Johnny Stanton. “Really disappointed that we didn’t.”

Sanchez and the players said they would need to see more replays of Keys’ hit to determine what they thought of the call. What they find won’t likely make them feel any better, but by the book it appeared to be the correct decision.

Early on this one resembled last year’s blowout. UCLA scored on all four of its first-half possessions (excluding the end-of-half kneel), and Rosen was barely getting breathed on, let alone touched, in the pocket.

UNLV’s counterpunch started with a much-needed touchdown just before halftime, and then the defense woke up. Missed tackles were a problem for the second straight week — “That really hurt us tonight,” said senior linebacker Ryan McAleenan — but that wasn’t the case in the third quarter.

The Rebels started getting more pressure, including their lone sack, they wrapped up a lot better and the Bruins held the ball for less than four minutes. Meanwhile, UNLV’s offense converted all four of its third-down attempts in the quarter, and if not for Stanton’s second bad interception to UCLA’s Randall Goforth, the Rebels might have pulled even closer or tied the game.

“It was in our hands,” said sophomore running back Lexington Thomas, who had 112 yards and a score on 19 carries. “Keep going, keep pushing and we just fell short.”

Rosen finished 23-of-38 with 267 yards and a touchdown, while UCLA running back Soso Jamabo stole the show with 90 yards and three touchdowns on 11 carries.

Stanton finished 11-of-28 with a touchdown and two interceptions, plus 46 yards and a score on the ground. There were plenty of positives — UNLV’s first play of the game might have been a touchdown had receiver Devonte Boyd not dropped the pass — but a few of Stanton’s incompletions easily could have been picked off, and there will be more to break down in the film room.

“A couple of times he set the formations up wrong,” Sanchez said. “He had a good game last week, but this is his first time in an environment like this playing against a Pac-12 school.”

In the end it’s a learning experience and a measuring stick for the Rebels. The tape will show there’s a lot of work to be done, particularly in terms of tackling and quarterback play, but there’s a lot to build on, too.

“You go from a game that wasn’t even in question at any point last year to a year later, you’re sitting there with a chance to win in the fourth quarter,” Sanchez said.

Said Thomas, “I think people realize that we’re not the same team from last year. Not the same team from 10 years ago. This is a new and improved team, a new era.”

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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