Armani Rogers saves Rebels’ season with miracle drive

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Andres Leighton / AP

UNLV wide receiver Kendal Keys, right, celebrates with a teammate after scoring the go-ahead touchdown against New Mexico during the final minute of their game in Albuquerque, Friday, Nov. 17, 2017. UNLV won 38-35.

ALBUQUERQUE — It took Armani Rogers three passes to save UNLV’s season.

Well, it actually took a lot more than that. Rogers also had to rush for 193 yards (including an electrifying 83-yard touchdown run) and produce 404 yards of total offense, but with less than a minute on the clock and the Rebels trailing at New Mexico, 35-30, Rogers only needed three perfect throws to produce a miracle comeback and rescue the Rebels’ bowl hopes.

First, he calmly connected with Brandon Presley on the right sideline to convert on a 3rd-and-4 from deep in his own territory. On the next play, Rogers hit Darren Woods 30 yards up the left seam, and Woods dragged defenders another 20 yards before finally going down at the New Mexico 15.

Then, with the clock still running, Rogers lined up the offense, saw that UNM was playing just one deep safety, and coolly stroked a pinpoint back-shoulder pass to Kendal Keys in the left corner of the end zone to give UNLV the lead:

Three plays. Three completions. Twenty-nine seconds. Seventy-one yards. One season-defining win for Rogers and the Rebels.

The victory improved UNLV to 5-6 on the season, and now the team will play at UNR next week with a bowl berth on the line. If the Rebels can defeat their in-state rivals in the season finale and finish 6-6, they’ll not only bring home the Fremont Cannon—they’ll also become bowl eligible for the first time since 2013.

And they owe it to a freshman quarterback who, despite completing just 10-of-22 passes before the final drive, never lost his composure.

Rogers said maintaining his cool was the most important factor in leading the game-winning drive.

“I tried to stay as calm as I can, because I don’t want to get too up and then start getting a little nervous,” Rogers said. “I just tried to keep myself calm. Calm, cool and collected.”

After Rogers found Keys again for the 2-point conversion and a 38-35 lead, New Mexico’s final desperation drive ended when UNLV linebacker Javin White picked off a deep heave at midfield.

The UNLV locker room was raucous after the game, with the celebration spilling out into the hallway at New Mexico’s DreamStyle Stadium. Head coach Tony Sanchez couldn’t conceal his excitement, even as he admitted that Rogers’ heroics covered for UNLV’s poor play throughout the first 59 minutes—including some miscues from Rogers himself.

“We had plenty of opportunities to go ahead and really pull away at different times throughout the game, and we didn’t,” Sanchez said. “And we end up down, you’ve got a minute left on the clock and you’re down and it doesn’t look real hopeful.”

“Armani really struggled throwing the football tonight,” Sanchez continued. “He overthrew so many guys, open receivers, and you know what? When it mattered at the end, he stayed calm and collected, [New Mexico’s defense] stayed in cover-1 and gave us some opportunities there, and he made three great throws in a row.”

Before Rogers did the unthinkable, it looked like UNLV’s postseason hopes were going to be dashed in heartbreaking fashion. The Rebels were nursing a 30-28 lead with 4:17 to play, but a brutal 3-and-out from the offense — including back-to-back incomplete passes by Rogers and a delay of game penalty — gave the ball back to New Mexico.

The UNLV defense never figured out a way to slow down UNM’s option rushing attack, and that appeared to be a fatal flaw when Lobos quarterback Lamar Jordan broke free for a 41-yard go-ahead touchdown with 1:11 to play.

For the game, New Mexico ran for 482 yards on 8.2 yards per carry, and three different Lobos broke the 100-yard barrier. That should have sealed the game for New Mexico, but Rogers had other ideas.

Until a few minutes before game time, it wasn’t even known that Rogers was going to start at quarterback. A concussion had forced him to miss one game, and the hot play of backup QB Johnny Stanton kept Rogers on the bench for two more contests. But Sanchez went back to the freshman on Friday, and it paid off.

Despite not seeing much game action over the past month, Rogers said the final drive played out just as he planned.

“I started off the second half kind of shaky, missing on a lot of balls,” he said. “I saw we had a minute and 11 seconds left, and I knew I had to stay in there and stay calm. When I saw Woods running down the seam vs. the linebacker, I said, ‘If I put it out there I know he’s going to make a play.’ Then I saw Kendal playing 1-on-1 with one of their corners and I said, ‘The safety’s playing the middle of the field, so I’m going to throw this jump ball to Kendal.’ And it played out exactly like I wanted it to.”

Now, heading into the all-important final week of the regular season, there’s no doubt that the Rebels are Rogers’ team, now and for the foreseeable future.

“I think that’s what the mark of a great quarterback is,” Sanchez said. “Being able to have those drives at the end of a game and coming back and winning … He didn’t play real well, but then to have the courage and the savviness and the strength to go out and make the plays at the end — those three balls he completed in a row were unbelievable.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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