Gary Kazanjian / Assocaited Press
Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017 | 11:36 p.m.
One week ago, UNLV’s season and Johnny Stanton’s quarterbacking career both appeared to be finished. A home loss to Utah State dropped the Rebels to 2-5, and Stanton was buried so deep on the QB depth chart that the 245-pound senior spent the second half of that game plugging away at linebacker.
Now, after UNLV’s shocking 26-16 win at Fresno State on Saturday, both Stanton and the Rebels’ postseason hopes are improbably alive.
Stanton, who took over the starting role in place of injured freshman Armani Rogers, played with the poise of lifelong quarterback against Fresno. He completed 17-of-29 passes for 155 yards, and he added a pivotal rushing touchdown in the third quarter to help UNLV take control of the contest.
The UNLV defense played its best game of the season, holding Fresno State to half of its season scoring average. The Rebels’ much-maligned unit limited Fresno State to 4.8 yards per play and just seven points in the second half.
But Stanton was the star on Saturday, and it was well-deserved.
After transferring to UNLV from junior college, he opened the 2016 season as UNLV’s starting quarterback, but a knee injury ended his campaign after just four games. He was given a chance to compete for the job again before this season, but lost out to Rogers in training camp and found himself at No. 3 on the depth chart.
At that point, he could have left UNLV as a grad transfer and finished out his college career elsewhere, but Stanton decided to stick it out in Las Vegas.
On Saturday, celebration-soaked coach Tony Sanchez was glad he did.
“Johnny’s a great kid and he’s had kind of an interesting career,” Sanchez said outside a raucous UNLV locker room. “A guy like that, most people in this day and age, you know what they do? They tuck tail and run to the hills. He didn’t. He became a good teammate. He just worked and worked and worked, and when he got his opportunity tonight, he led us to a victory. And I thought he played fantastic.”
Even during his crash course at linebacker, when he was eating dirt in practice and shedding blocks and doing the dirty work in the trenches, Stanton said he didn’t waver. He felt he’d get another chance, and when Rogers went down with a head injury last week and No. 2 passer Kurt Palandech floundered in relief, his opportunity arrived.
Stanton said the most difficult part of transitioning back to quarterback over the past week wasn’t playing the position, but regaining the swagger and confidence required to lead his teammates.
“The part that was hard was becoming ‘The Guy’ again,” Stanton said. “I thought I fell into the role comfortably. After having half the season being Armani’s backup and supporting him the whole time, being supported was definitely nice. There was definitely a lot more responsibility and a lot more pressure, but that’s why I play football. I love that pressure.”
Sanchez coached as though he had the utmost belief in Stanton. The Rebels surprisingly featured a pass-heavy game plan early, as they threw the ball on 19 of 37 plays in the first half. Due to the deliberate tempo employed by both teams, UNLV only had three possessions in the first half, and Stanton helped the Rebels put points on the board each time. Though they didn’t find the end zone, three field goals allowed Stanton and the Rebels to go into halftime tied, 9-9.
The opening drive of the third quarter proved to be critical. UNLV had been outscored, 72-3, in the second halves of its last three games, including total meltdowns in losses to Air Force and Utah State. But Stanton calmly led the Rebels 75 yards on 11 plays, and he finished things off himself, barreling through two defenders at the goal line for a 7-yard touchdown run.
After a few weeks spent absorbing blockers while moonlighting as a linebacker, Stanton said it was satisfying to run over opponents on his own terms.
“The biggest difference between quarterback and linebacker is that I’m directing,” Stanton said. “I’m trying to make the defense react to me and it’s nice to be able to know what’s going on instead of having to react to what’s going on. That [touchdown run] was a perfect example of being able to put my nose in there and wiggle my way into the end zone.”
Fresno State answered with a 14-play, 89-yard touchdown drive to tie the game at 16-16. The Bulldogs followed that up by making the biggest blunder of the night, however. After forcing UNLV to punt on the ensuing possession, Fresno State muffed the kick and UNLV recovered at the Fresno State 23-yard line. Four plays later, junior running back Lexington Thomas scored on a 2-yard run to make it 23-16.
UNLV put the game away midway through the fourth quarter, again with help from the Fresno State special teams unit. This time, the Bulldogs’ long-snapper launched the ball over the punter’s head, allowing UNLV to recover inside the 20. The Rebels kicked a short field goal to go up 26-16, and Fresno State never threatened again.
Junior end Jameer Outsey spent the last few weeks sharing a defensive huddle with Stanton in practice, and he said that only increased his confidence in his quarterback.
“I think Johnny’s just a stud,” Outsey said. “He’s a great player. Everybody knows he’s capable of doing whatever he wants to do. He’s going play defense, and he was out there making plays on defense. Move him right back to offense and he’s making plays. Everybody supports Johnny. We all knew he could do it. There was nobody doubting him or thinking he couldn’t do it. We all stood behind him and picked him up and he did exactly what we thought he would.”
UNLV is now 3-5 on the season and 2-3 in Mountain West play.