Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017 | 10:40 p.m.
The worst loss in college football history began with UNLV committing a penalty before the game even started.
The Rebels, who came into Saturday’s season opener against Howard brimming with confidence and dreaming of an eventual bowl berth, were flagged for an offsides infraction on the opening kickoff. (Things like this often start small.)
Sixty minutes later, UNLV sat on the wrong side of a 43-40 final score, stunned by an FCS opponent that came into the game as a 45-point underdog. The huge spread cemented Howard’s triumph as both the biggest upset in college football history and the worst loss in the 50-year history of the UNLV football program.
It was a game that UNLV found many, many ways to lose. The Rebels’ rebuilt defense was completely overmatched for the entirety, surrendering 309 rushing yards. The offense started slowly and shot itself in the foot too many times to recover, losing a pair of fumbles that led directly to 14 points for Howard. And the fatal blow was delivered by the Rebels’ special teams unit, as freshman Tariq Hollandsworth coughed up the ball on a kick return late in the fourth quarter with UNLV trailing by three points.
Third-year head coach Tony Sanchez, who now owns a 7-18 record at the helm, said his team made too many mistakes.
“This was a game we gave away,” Sanchez said.
They started giving it away before the opening kickoff, and continued for the next four quarters. In addition to the turnovers, UNLV committed 13 penalties (a team high since Sanchez took over) for 90 yards, and the Rebels’ inability to convert on third downs (2-of-8) let Howard command a time-of-possession advantage of five minutes (32:30 to 27:30).
UNLV freshman quarterback Armani Rogers came into the game drawing Cam Newton comparisons, but the star of the night ended up being Cam’s actual brother — Howard freshman QB Caylin Newton. The younger Newton repeatedly gashed the UNLV defense with option plays and finished with 190 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries.
Howard surged out to a surprising 14-9 lead, and the situation became downright concerning midway through the second quarter when UNLV running back Charles Williams fumbled and Bison linebacker Devin Rollins ran it back 75 yards for a touchdown.
Trailing 21-9, Rogers led the Rebels back. He led two scoring drives before the half to cut the margin to 21-19 at the break, and two third-quarter touchdown marches saw UNLV take a 33-21 lead.
At that point, it appeared as though UNLV had weathered an early scare and reclaimed control of the game thanks to the 24-0 run. But the defense was unable to provide any assistance the rest of the way, as Howard scored touchdowns on its next three possessions to regain a 43-40 lead.
UNLV had one final chance to save itself after taking over possession inside the 5-yard line with 2:44 to play. On the first play of the potential game-winning drive, Rogers hit freshman receiver Drew Tejchman for a 34-yard gain, but Tejchman fumbled at midfield and Howard recovered.
The Bison ran the clock down inside 20 seconds before punting and pinning the Rebels on their own goal line, essentially ending the game.
Sanchez said he empathized with long-suffering UNLV fans who have become used to staggering, season-shattering losses.
“We expect to win a game like this,” Sanchez said. “I would definitely understand the frustration of the fans, I would definitely understand the frustration of people that have been Rebels supporters.”
Rogers played a fine game in his college debut, completing 11-of-19 passes for 220 yards and one touchdown. He also ran for 82 yards on nine carries.
Sophomore running back Lexington Thomas carried most of the load offensively for UNLV, finishing with 151 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries. Senior receiver Devonte Boyd caught four balls for 105 yards and a touchdown.