Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016 | 11:50 p.m.
The type of game that was supposed to be behind UNLV played out in strikingly familiar fashion Saturday night at Sam Boyd Stadium. The key difference is that Idaho won’t drop down to Division I-AA for two years, so for now this is just a regular nonconference loss. But the gut punch feels about the same.
“I’m beyond frustrated,” second-year coach Tony Sanchez said after losing 33-30 in overtime to the Vandals. “I’m embarrassed, I’m pissed off, I’m sick to my stomach right now. This is about as angry as I’ve been since I’ve been sitting in this chair.”
The Rebels were two-touchdown home favorites and ran for 373 yards (7.4 yards per carry) while scoring every time they got in the red zone. Here are some, but not all, of the reasons that didn’t matter in a game that UNLV (1-3) only led once, briefly, in overtime:
• Junior quarterback Johnny Stanton threw two interceptions for the third straight game, including one pick-six and another that could have (should have) been returned for another score.
Stanton further proved his rushing credentials with 131 yards on 18 carries, including some great decisions in the read-option, but his passing hasn’t really improved. Sanchez said the coaching staff briefly considered making a change and he was glad they didn’t — Stanton finished 14-of-26 for 175 yards with a touchdown and two picks — but Stanton never went long without misfires, including on UNLV’s final drive of regulation when he threw long but receiver Devonte Boyd broke the route short on third down.
“They weren’t on the same page,” Sanchez said.
• UNLV hadn’t attempted a field goal in three games, and against Idaho (2-2) sophomore Evan Pantels drilled all three of his attempts. That’s a positive, except that the Rebels never want to come up short of a touchdown three times inside the 15-yard line.
All of Pantels’ kicks were in close, and one came just a couple of plays after receiver Darren Woods Jr. caught a pass but was pushed out of bounds in the end zone. Idaho wasn’t good enough to pull away, but neither were the Rebels’ field goals instead of touchdowns enough to move them forward.
“Defense wasn’t playing well, and then offense gets down there and we’re kicking field goals,” Sanchez said. “We put the ball in the end zone one of those times and we’re not even sitting here talking about it. Well, we are, but it’s a lot happier.”
• Perhaps most important, UNLV’s defense gave up giant plays in the passing game for the second straight week. What first seemed like a chuck-it-and-hope-style offense for Idaho turned into the Vandals’ best play as the game wore on, with junior quarterback Matt Linehan throwing for 249 yards and a touchdown on only 17-of-35 passing.
“We were atrocious covering the deep ball,” Sanchez said. “… They changed their game plan and they took quite a few shots because of our inability to play the deep ball.”
Linehan completed three passes of more than 30 yards by heaving the ball high into single coverage. That also worked for drawing a few pass-interference calls as the Rebel defenders struggled to get into position and get their heads turned around to find the ball.
“They definitely saw that as a weakness and attacked it,” said senior safety Troy Hawthorne.
Unlike last week’s loss at Central Michigan, when receivers were roaming free in the secondary, UNLV’s defensive backs were generally in position against the Vandals. They just were beaten, and while the defense got worse as the game went on, the mostly one-dimensional offense couldn’t make up enough ground despite dominating total yardage, 539 to 378.
“We’re all embarrassed,” said sophomore running back Lexington Thomas, who had his third straight 100-yard rushing game. “No one has a good taste in their mouths; that’s a nasty loss we just took.”
Thomas, who finished with 160 yards and two touchdowns for a phenomenal 8.4 yards per carry, didn’t get a touch during UNLV’s two-minute drive at the end of regulation. The ball should probably be in his hands with the game on the line, but that’s a quibble in the grand scheme of a UNLV season that could turn into a step backward.
Earlier this year, the Sun Belt Conference announced that it wouldn’t renew Idaho’s contract, and starting with the 2018 season the Vandals will be back in Division I-AA playing in the Big Sky Conference. It was a pair of Big Sky teams, Southern Utah and Northern Arizona, that came into Sam Boyd and handed UNLV losses in 2011 and 2012.
And just more than a week after UNLV announced a $10 million gift to the program, it’s a Big Sky-bound program that brings the Rebels back to reality.
“These games, I thought they were past us too,” Hawthorne said, “but obviously not.”