Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017 | 7:46 p.m.
The good news is, UNLV’s second straight win — this one a white-knuckle 31-23 home victory over Hawaii on Saturday — has improved the Rebels to 4-5 and put them in position to become bowl eligible if they can win two of their final three games.
The bad news is, the team may be facing an honest to goodness quarterback controversy.
Senior QB Johnny Stanton, who started the season at No. 3 on the depth chart and was relegated to playing defense and special teams as recently as two weeks ago, was the catalyst against Hawaii. Stanton started in place of Armani Rogers for the second consecutive week and came through in a big way, completing 18-of-26 passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns.
Rogers was active for the game and saw his first action since suffering a concussion against Utah State two weeks ago, but he was mostly ineffective. The powerful freshman commandeered two drives, both in the second quarter, and connected on just 2-of-5 passes for 37 yards.
At halftime, Tony Sanchez decided to give Stanton another opportunity, and he ran with it. Stanton played the entire second half and led UNLV to three touchdowns and a field goal after the break.
After the game, Stanton graciously tried his best to diffuse the delicate situation at quarterback.
“Obviously, I think tonight is a great win,” Stanton said. “But whether it was me or whether it was Armani, I would be just as happy.”
Stanton started out hot, leading UNLV to a touchdown on its first possession of the game for a 7-0 lead. His two subsequent drives sputtered, however, and Rogers took over. Sanchez said the plan going into the game was for Rogers to handle a possession or two in the second quarter, but the Rebels couldn’t get anything going with him at the helm.
Hawaii scored a touchdown early in the third quarter to take a 13-7 lead, and that’s when Stanton began to heat up. On the ensuing drive, Stanton hit Brandon Presley on a short slant, and the sophomore receiver accelerated past the Hawaii defense for a 52-yard touchdown. That put UNLV in front, 14-13, and the Rebels would never trail again.
Seven minutes later, after the UNLV defense forced a Hawaii punt, Stanton found Kendal Keys in the back of the end zone to extend the lead to 21-13. Hawaii was tagged with a personal foul on the PAT, pushing the resulting kickoff to the 50-yard-line, and Sanchez decided it was a good time to get aggressive.
The Rebels attempted an onside kick and recovered, giving them a short field and tons of momentum. Stanton capitalized immediately, hitting Presley for a 30-yard gain that advanced the ball to the goal line. Two plays later, junior running back Lexington Thomas scraped his way into the end zone to give the Rebels a 28-13 advantage.
Hawaii closed the gap in the fourth quarter, as a Diocemy Saint Juste touchdown run pulled the Rainbow Warriors within 28-20 with 11:46 to play, but Stanton answered by leading UNLV on a 14-play, 63-yard drive that chewed up almost seven valuable minutes of game time. Evan Pantels capped off the march with a 32-yard field goal to make it 31-20.
Hawaii kicked a field goal on the next drive to trim the deficit to eight points, and after forcing a 3-and-out, the Warriors had time for one last desperation drive. Hawaii quarterback Dru Brown quickly led his team across midfield, and he scrambled out of bounds at the UNLV 23 with seven seconds to play. On the final play, Brown bought time in the pocket but eventually overthrew his receiver in the end zone, giving UNLV the win.
The Rebels are now faced with something of a decision to make at the quarterback position. Rogers is a superstar in the making, and while he’s shown flashes of his immense talent throughout the season, he’s also been inconsistent in the passing game.
Stanton is a senior on his way out the door, but he’s been effective over the past two weeks. He has played with poise, he has produced, and he has led the Rebels back into bowl contention with back-to-back wins.
Sanchez could choose to ride with the hot hand and hope Stanton can deliver more magic down the stretch, but that might come at the risk of alienating Rogers, the designated future of the program.
After the win over Hawaii, Sanchez was happy to leave that decision for another day.
“I’m going to think about that tomorrow,” he said with a laugh.