Saturday, Oct. 21, 2017 | 7:30 p.m.
For the second consecutive week, UNLV built a sizable early lead only to watch it erode over the course of the second half of a demoralizing defeat. This time it was Utah State scoring the game’s final 38 points to hand the Rebels a 52-28 loss at Sam Boyd Stadium.
The Rebels may have also lost starting quarterback Armani Rogers in the process, as the frreshman had to be helped off the field after suffering a head injury in the second quarter. He is now in concussion protocol and could miss next week’s game at Fresno State.
UNLV jumped out to early leads of 14-0 and 28-14, but each time Utah State immediately countered with long touchdown passes to stay within striking distance.
UNLV didn’t score after Rogers went out, while the defense allowed 578 yards of total offense on the day.
Head coach Tony Sanchez didn’t paint a pretty picture in his postgame news conference.
“We did not play a very good football game,” Sanchez said.
Junior running back Lexington Thomas staked the Rebels to a 7-0 lead midway through the opening quarter with a 14-yard touchdown run, and Rogers scored on a 6-yard keeper on the team’s next drive to make it 14-0. But instead of pulling away, the UNLV defense allowed Utah State to get right back into the game.
Aggies freshman quarterback Jordan Love, who was making his first career start, lofted a 70-yard touchdown pass over the top to receiver Savon Scarver on Utah State’s ensuing drive to cut the gap to 14-7.
Later, after another Rogers touchdown run gave UNLV a 28-14 lead with 6:05 to play in the half, Utah State again took advantage of the vulnerable Rebels defense. This time it was receiver Jordan Nathan running down the middle of the field uncovered, and Love found him for an easy 75-yard score.
UNLV’s secondary mixed up their coverage assignments on the long touchdowns, harmful mistakes that did not sit well with Sanchez after the game.
“Unfortunately, we’re just bad on defense,” Sanchez said. “You get up 14 and you give up a 70-yard touchdown, then you get up 14 again and you give up a 75-yard touchdown, uncontested blown coverage.”
“It burns you to your core,” he continued. “You work hard to come up with these opportunities in this crazy game and it may happen once, but not twice. And it happened twice.”
Love finished the game 19-of-27 for 316 yards and two touchdowns. Utah State rushed for 255 yards on 46 carries (5.5 yards per carry).
It was the second consecutive week that UNLV’s defense fell apart after halftime. The Rebels allowed Air Force to score touchdowns on four of its final five possessions last week, and on Saturday Utah State scored four second-half touchdowns to pull away.
Things got so bad on defense that injuries forced the Rebels to insert reserve quarterback Johnny Stanton at outside linebacker for most of the second half. Stanton has a linebacker’s build at 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, and he has been practicing at the position recently, but the fact that UNLV doesn’t have a better option at such a key position is telling.
The team’s other backup quarterback, No. 2 Kurt Palandech, couldn’t move the offense after he stepped in for Rogers. Palandech went 8-of-18 for 48 yards, with no touchdowns and one interception.
UNLV ran for 300 yards on 30 carries in the first half (10.0 yards per attempt), mostly with Rogers at the helm. The Rebels’ running game died after halftime, as they managed just 75 yards on 23 carries (3.3 per attempt).
Sanchez said Utah State didn’t respect Palandech’s passing ability and defended the run aggressively once Rogers went out.
“When Armani’s not in there and Kurt’s in there, you look at the way they’re triggering on defense and that mentality completely changed,” Sanchez said. “The second half, they weren’t really worried about [the passing game].”
UNLV drops to 2-5 with the loss (1-3 in Mountain West play). The Rebels would now have to win four of their final five contests to qualify for a bowl game.
With Rogers in concussion protocol, Sanchez said the Rebels would spend the coming week deciding between Palandech and Stanton for the starting job against Fresno State. Stanton spent most of the past week practicing at linebacker, but Sanchez said he’d be in the quarterback mix going forward, and that both passers might play at Fresno if Rogers is indeed ruled out.