Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018 | 11:51 p.m.
The play was supposed to gain three or four yards. But in the hands of Lexington Thomas, it turned into one of the most improbable highlight runs in recent UNLV football history, as the junior running back took a routine handoff and raced 75 yards for a late go-ahead touchdown in the Rebels’ extraordinary 27-24 comeback win at San Diego State.
UNLV was down by as many as 11 points in the fourth quarter, but solid defense down the stretch and the heroics of Thomas gave the Rebels the unlikely victory. UNLV’s six-game losing streak is over; the Rebels are now 3-7 on the season and 1-5 in Mountain West play.
Trailing, 24-19, with less than four minutes on the clock, UNLV faced a 2nd-and-4 from the 25-yard line. The play call from the Rebels’ sideline was a simple inside zone handoff for Thomas, who at that point had churned out a workmanlike 58 yard on 18 carries.
Thomas burst straight ahead through the line of scrimmage, then veered sharply to his right, into open space. He turned on the jets along the right sideline and crossed midfield, then cut back left, racing all the way to the opposite sideline before ducking inside the pylon to give UNLV the lead.
It was an all-time play by an all-time player. The touchdown — Thomas’s second of the game — made him UNLV’s all-time leader in rushing touchdowns with 38.
Coach Tony Sanchez said Thomas put the Rebels on his back.
“To win special games, you need special players, and Lexington Thomas made a special play,” Sanchez said. “That is a dude making a great college-football play.”
The play, which Thomas said is a staple of the UNLV offense, was designed to keep the Rebels’ potential game-winning drive on track. After taking over at the 8 with four minutes to play, quarterback Max Gilliam picked up a first down with a 10-yard pass to Darren Woods. After another short completion to Mekhi Stevenson, the Rebels called Thomas’s number.
Sanchez attributed it to Thomas’s ability to turn routine plays into huge gains.
“You’re always hoping it might pop, but really you’re just trying to move the chains,” Sanchez said of the play call. “But again, you give guys like that opportunities, sometimes they take something simple and turn it into something special.”
After Thomas scored the stunning touchdown, Gilliam hit Brandon Presley for the 2-point conversion to give UNLV the 27-24 lead. San Diego State’s ensuing drive crossed midfield, and the Aztecs were on the precipice of field-goal range when quarterback Ryan Agnew overthrew his intended receiver on a 2nd-and-10 play. UNLV cornerback Jericho Flowers secured the easy interception, and the Rebels sealed one of their biggest wins under Sanchez.
Thomas finished with 133 yards and two touchdowns.
While open running lanes haven’t been as plentiful as they were with Armani Rogers at quarterback, Thomas has continued to run hard, with encouragement (and sometimes criticism) from Sanchez. On Saturday, that determination paid off in a big way.
“It meant a lot to the team, not only me,” Thomas said outside a boisterous visitors’ locker room. “Coach Sanchez, before the game he was telling us it’s going to be a lot of 3-yard runs, 4-yard runs, but eventually it’s going to pop. I just believed in what he said.”