Rebels use big plays to beat Idaho in ‘must-win’ game

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV QB Armani Rogers (1) is celebrated by Zack Singer (51) after another score over Howard defenders during their home-opening football game on Saturday, September 2, 2017. L.E. Baskow

The Rebels were just waiting for a big play.

A week after squandering too many offensive drives in a shocking loss to Howard, UNLV’s attack sputtered again in the first half of a must-win game at Idaho on Saturday. Despite consistently opening holes in the running game and freeing up receivers downfield, the Rebels managed to put up just 10 points in the first 30 minutes.

That was enough to take a 10-3 lead into the half, but it wasn’t nearly enough to make anyone on the UNLV sideline comfortable.

They didn’t have to wait long for the second-half fireworks to begin. Junior running back Lexington Thomas broke free for a pair of long touchdown runs in the third quarter, and Armani Rogers threw the longest touchdown pass in school history as the Rebels buried Idaho under a barrage of explosive plays, eventually pulling away for a 44-16 win.

The victory was massively important for UNLV, which improved to 1-1 on the season. The Rebels are still very much alive in their quest for a bowl berth despite their Week 1 no-show against Howard, and they have the awakening of their offense to thank.

Thomas opened the second half by bolting free for a 60-yard touchdown run on the third play from scrimmage. The 5-foot-9 speedster squeezed through a hole behind right guard Justin Polu and then bounced outside, racing past Idaho defenders and down the right sideline untouched.

That extended the Rebels’ lead to 17-3 and gave the team some much needed breathing room. UNLV defensive back Chauncey Scissum intercepted Idaho quarterback Matt Linehan three plays later, and the return gave the Rebels possession inside the 5-yard-line. Thomas poked his way to a 2-yard touchdown run to make it a 24-3 game, and the rout was on.

After an Idaho touchdown midway through the third quarter gave the Vandals a faint glimmer of hope, Thomas extinguished it with a 62-yard scoring burst up the middle.

Thomas finished with a career-high 190 yards and three touchdowns on 17 carries, and he and the rest of the offense couldn’t have picked a better time to come up huge.

“This was a must-win game,” Thomas said. “We had to win this game. Everybody knew in the locker room. You could tell the demeanor was totally different during practice. Everybody was going hard, there was less goofing around. And we came out and we were ready to play.”

Rogers, who made his first career road start, also played a gutsy game. The 6-foot-5 freshman pounded his way to 86 rushing yards on 16 tough carries, and when it came time to put Idaho away in the fourth quarter, Rogers fired a deep strike from his own end zone, hitting receiver Devonte Boyd in stride at midfield. Boyd pulled away from the Idaho defense and glided into the end zone for the longest pass play in UNLV history.

The cornerback covering Boyd had blitzed on the play, leaving Idaho safety Jordan Grabski one-on-one with arguably the best receiver that has ever suited up for the Rebels.

Rogers saw the play develop and loved the matchup.

“I just saw [Boyd] running with the safety and nobody else by him,” Rogers said. “So I said I’m going to air this out and let him do what he does best with the ball in his hands.”

Rogers completed 10-of-16 passes for 193 yards and one touchdown. Boyd caught two passes for 103 yards, giving him 13 career 100-yard games, the most all-time among UNLV players.

The long scoring plays were the difference in the game, but UNLV also enjoyed a strong bounce-back effort on the defensive side. After some shaky blown coverages in the first half (which Idaho was unable to capitalize on), the Rebels settled in and corralled the Idaho offense.

A week after Howard bulldozed the Rebels to the tune of 309 rushing yards, Idaho ran for just 3.4 yards per carry, and UNLV held the Vandals to 5-of-15 on third downs.

UNLV will have a bye week and 13 days to prepare for the enormous task of playing at Ohio State on Sept. 23, but for now, big plays and timely defense were enough to keep the Rebels’ season alive.

“We took a hell of a blow last week,” head coach Tony Sanchez said. “That’s something that took a while. It was hard getting out of bed last week early on. The way our kids showed up, and the way they believed in themselves, they just went right back to work. They didn’t make any excuses. They didn’t listen to the noise, they went right back to work. And it wasn’t clean right away today. There were some bumps coming out and [Idaho] kept it a little close, but the guys stayed resilient, they stayed positive, they kept executing and we were able to pull away. I tell you what man, that’s all about the boys. They did a great job today.”

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

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