Rebels stunned by Air Force comeback in 34-30 loss

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David Zalubowski / AP Photo

UNLV quarterback Armani Rogers, center, is tackled after a short gain by Air Force Falcons linebackers Grant Ross, top, and Shaquille Vereen in the second half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2017, at Air Force Academy, Colo. Air Force won 34-30.

UNLV suffered its second catastrophic loss of the season on Saturday, as the Rebels built an early 27-0 lead at Air Force before a total collapse in all three phases of the game allowed AFA to roar back for a 34-30 win.

With a key road victory all but assured, UNLV (2-4, 1-2 Mountain West) was outscored 27-3 in the second half as its bowl hopes slipped further away.

Air Force quarterback Arion Worthman torched the UNLV defense in the second half and finished with 166 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Four of his scores came after halftime, including a 1-yard sneak with 2:14 remaining that gave the Falcons their first and only lead of the game.

UNLV had a chance to win on its final possession, but the drive stalled at midfield. On 4th-and-10, quarterback Armani Rogers hit Brandon Presley on a short crossing route and the receiver was tackled well shy of the first-down marker.

“It really comes down to a lack of execution,” UNLV head coach Tony Sanchez said, before detailing a lengthy list of key mistakes made by his team over the final 30 minutes.

UNLV stormed out to a quick lead, as junior running back Lexington Thomas burst free for a 55-yard touchdown on the Rebels’ sixth play from scrimmage, and junior Xzaviar Campbell added his own short TD run a possession later to stretch the advantage. A pair of Evan Pantels field goals made it 20-0, and Rogers scored on a QB keeper to give the underdog Rebels an astonishing 27-0 lead with 3:28 to play in the first half.

At that point, UNLV had a win probability of 96.9 percent, according to ESPN.com. But Air Force went on a 10-play, 75-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes of the half to trim the lead to 27-7 at the break.

UNLV was still in control of the game, but the Rebels refused to put the contest completely out of reach no matter how many times Air Force appeared to gift-wrap it for the visitors.

Air Force received the ball to open the second half but fumbled on the first play from scrimmage. UNLV recovered in AFA territory, but went 3-and-out and punted. Air Force then fumbled again on the very next play, and UNLV recovered again. But the Rebels stalled inside the 15-yard line and were forced to settle for just three points to push the lead to 30-7.

Air Force then scored the next 27 points to close out the game, with Worthman doing most of the damage on the ground. The junior quarterback finished off a 10-play drive with a 1-yard score to make it 27-14, and after UNLV went 3-and-out on the next possession, Air Force blocked the punt. Granted a short field, AFA scored five plays later on another Worthman run. The 2-point attempt failed, but Air Force was within 30-20 with more than 12 minutes to play.

UNLV went 3-and-out again on the next drive, and Air Force went 55 yards on 10 plays before Worthman’s 6-yard touchdown run closed the gap to 30-27.

Staring into the abyss, it looked like UNLV would be granted a lifeline when quarterback Armani Rogers took a QB sweep around left tackle and broke into the open field with six minutes left in the game. He rumbled inside the Air Force 20 and looked to be on his way to clinching the game before an Air Force defender hacked the ball loose.

UNLV wide receiver Kendal Keys tried to fall on the ball at the 10-yard line, but it squibbed out of his grasp. Sophomore receiver Darren Woods tried to scoop it up at the goal line, but the ball was knocked out of his hands and Air Force recovered in the end zone for a touchback.

Air Force took over at the 20, and the Falcons’ ensuing 10-play drive ended with Worthman’s go-ahead touchdown.

Sanchez said the Rebels are coached to fall on fumbles and not try to scoop and run, but he didn’t blame his receivers for failing to recover the ball on the game’s crucial play.

“Never pick it up and run in,” Sanchez said. “But it’s a young guy, it’s a sophomore. You want your guys to jump on the ball. You don’t want them to pick it up and run in, but you guys have watched football before, that ball is weird…We just didn’t pick it up. The biggest thing is don’t fumble it in the first place.”

UNLV averaged 7.8 yards per play in the first half, but managed just 3.9 after the break. Air Force’s splits were the exact opposite, as the Falcons jumped from 4.2 yards per play in the first half to 6.4 over the final two quarters.

Rogers finished with 148 rushing yards and 145 passing yards, but those totals include an interception and the costly fumble. Thomas gained 91 yards on 16 carries, but he had just four carries for two yards after halftime.

The Falcons wore down UNLV’s defense with a relentless triple-option running attack that produced a staggering 401 rushing yards on the day (261 in the second half).

“Obviously they did a good job of adjusting with the option at half,” Sanchez said. “Was there a couple of different wrinkles? We’ve got to go back and watch the film and see what was it that was kind of getting us at the end.”

The Rebels now head into the second half of the schedule with a demoralizing 2-4 record, a mark that includes an unfathomable loss to Howard in the season opener.

Sanchez said his team will need to show mental toughness in order to move on from Saturday’s loss at Air Force.

“[I’m] worried about the next 48 hours,” he said. “It’s hard to shake off. I don’t think anybody outside of locker rooms truly understands what you go through when you lose football games. It gut-wrenching. That just tears your heart and soul out.”

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

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