Live blog: Rebels blow late lead, Air Force wins 34-30

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Steve Marcus

UNLV football coach Tony Sanchez watches his team take on San Diego State at Sam Boyd Stadium, Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017.

Updated Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017 | 2:18 p.m.

Air Force outscored UNLV 27-3 in the second half and stunned the Rebels by handing them a 34-30 defeat.

AFA quarterback Arion Worthman scored his fifth touchdown of the game with 2:14 to play to give the Falcons their first lead of the game. UNLV led 27-0 at one point in the first half, but the Rebels now fall to 2-4 on the season.

UNLV clinging to 30-27 lead at Air Force

Air Force has scored touchdowns on its last three possessions, and UNLV is now clinging to a 30-27 lead early in the fourth quarter.

The Rebels offense has gone cold in the second half, registering just one first down on four drives since the break. That has allowed Air Force's option offense to get into a rhythm, as Falcons quarterback Arion Worthman now has 144 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 22 carries.

UNLV could desperately use a momentum-changing play, but there have been no signs of life since halftime.

Air Force closing gap in second half

A game that once looked out of reach is quickly turning into a nailbiter.

UNLV refused to take advantage of two Air Force turnovers early in the second half, scoring just three points off the giveaways, and the surging Falcons have pulled within 30-20 with 3:21 left in the third quarter.

Air Force scored touchdowns on back-to-back drives, with quarterback Arion Worthman doing the honors with short scoring runs each time. Air Force attempted a 2-point conversion after the most recent touchdown, but Worthman was sacked and the Rebels are now clinging to a shrinking 10-point lead. The UNLV offense has gained just 29 yards on 11 plays so far in the second half, which has allowed Air Force to claw its way back into the contest.

Rebels rolling at Air Force, lead 27-0

Armani Rogers scored on a 3-yard quarterback keeper and UNLV now leads Air Force, 27-0, with 3:28 left in the first half.

Air Force was driving at midfield when UNLV junior cornerback Jocquez Kalili forced a fumble with a jarring hit on an option pitch. Rebels linebacker Farrell Hester recovered, and Rogers scored six plays later.

Rebels start fast, lead 17-0 at Air Force

UNLV couldn't have asked for a better start. Junior running back Xzaviar Campbell capped a 9-play, 71-yard drive with a short touchdown run to put the Rebels up 14-0, and after Air Force fumbled the ensuing kickoff, UNLV tacked on a quick field goal to extend its lead to 17-0 at the end of the first quarter.

The Rebels averaged 6.7 yards per play in the first quarter, with junior running back Lexington Thomas leading the way (nine carries, 84 yards). Conversely, Air Force averaged just 1.3 yards per play in the first quarter, with a turnover and a missed field goal contributing to UNLV's fast start.

Lexington Thomas gives UNLV early 7-0 lead at Air Force

Well that didn't take long. Air Force came into today's game with the second-worst run defense in the nation and UNLV took immediate advantage, as junior running back Lexington Thomas broke free for a 54-yard touchdown on the sixth play from scrimmage to give the Rebels a 7-0 lead.

Thomas has now logged a touchdown run of longer than 50 yards in four of the last five games.

3 keys for UNLV football at Air Force

UNLV's date at Air Force today (11 a.m., AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain) may go a long way toward determining whether the Rebels can compete for a bowl berth this season. A win would improve the team's record to 3-3 and put Tony Sanchez's squad squarely on track for postseason play, but it won't be easy.

What can the underdog Rebels do to secure a tough road victory? Three keys for UNLV:

Stick with the run

Because of Air Force’s propensity for crowding the line of scrimmage on defense, UNLV offensive coordinator Barney Cotton may be tempted to try throwing the ball to loosen things up. But the Rebels’ best chance for a victory is to stay faithful to the ground game, even if they happen to fall behind by two or three scores. Air Force sports just about the worst run defense in the nation (6.7 yards per rush allowed, 129th out of 130 Division I teams), so UNLV would be wise to stick to the game plan (the Rebels run the ball 65.9 percent of the time, the 14th-highest rush percentage in the country). Give junior running back Lexington Thomas enough carries, and big plays will follow.

Cancel out negative plays

In order for UNLV’s run-heavy strategy to work, the Rebels have to stay ahead of schedule on first and second downs. Any play that gets stopped for no gain or negative yards will likely force the Rebels into passing situations, and that’s not the team’s formula for winning this season. UNLV’s running backs, from Thomas to backups Xzaviar Campbell and Evan Owens, need to be decisive in their cuts and not take risky chances by dancing behind the line of scrimmage. The backs have to trust the offensive line, pick a hole right away and move forward consistently.

Discipline on defensive line

Defending the triple option isn’t easy, and the pressure will be on the UNLV defensive linemen to think on their feet and contain perfectly on just about every snap, or the Rebels will be in for a long day. Led by senior defensive tackle Mike Hughes, it will be up to the D-line to stay disciplined on option plays. Hughes stressed the importance of playing sound assignment football and taking up blocks against Air Force, which will let the UNLV linebackers flow to the ball and make tackles. One defensive lineman over-pursuing of getting out of position can wreck an entire play and open up running lanes for AFA to exploit. It will take a near-perfect day of work in the trenches for UNLV to contain Air Force.

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

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