Thursday, Nov. 15, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Running back Lexington Thomas made the biggest play of UNLV’s 27-24 upset win over San Diego State last week, racing for a 75-yard touchdown late in the fourth quarter to give the Rebels the lead. But when head coach Tony Sanchez went back and watched the game tape, it wasn’t Thomas’ elusiveness in the open field that caught his attention — it was an unlikely blocker.
After making the handoff in the backfield, sophomore quarterback Max Gilliam carried out a fake keeper around right end, and when Thomas cut back down the right sideline, Gilliam surprisingly found himself leading the way.
The “Max Gilliam, lead blocker” experience didn’t last very long, because, well, Thomas is one of the fastest players in the nation and he quickly left Gilliam behind.
“I actually went out to go give a lead block, and then Lex got a little bit ahead of me, so I couldn’t do much,” Gilliam said with a laugh. “But I knew once he cut back across the field that there was nobody that was going to catch him.”
Whether Gilliam actually recorded a pancake is beside the point, according to Sanchez. The coach raved about Gilliam’s effort at his Monday press conference and said that mentality is one reason why the coaching staff is comfortable sticking with Gilliam at QB, even as incumbent starter Armani Rogers nears his return from injury.
“I didn’t notice it until afterward, but when we go back and watch the film, there’s a point where Max is handing the ball off to Lex, and then is now in front of Lex blocking,” Sanchez said. “When you have a team that plays with that type of passion – it’s real easy to hand the ball off and then see what he does – but all of a sudden your quarterback is out there lead-blocking … This kid is a winner. I love that effort. That’s what it’s all about.”
Aside from his willingness to pitch in as an extra offensive lineman, Gilliam has also improved steadily in the passing game since stepping in for Rogers two months ago. Over the last four games, he has completed 84-of-142 (59.2 percent) for 245.8 yards per game, with eight touchdowns and six interceptions.
That productivity finally paid off when he picked up his first win as a starter on Saturday. Even though Thomas got most of the ink, Gilliam worked a strong San Diego State defense to the tune of 16-of-24 for 237 yards and a touchdown.
Gilliam was clearly happy to have a victory on his record, but he deferred to the team when asked about it.
“It was big,” he said. “It was really exciting for me and everybody else on our team. It’s been a couple weeks since we’ve gotten a win, so it was definitely nice. It gave us a little energy and made it a lot easier to come back and get back to work [this week].”
Gilliam will likely get a chance to add another win this week at Hawaii. Rogers has practiced for three weeks now and is on the verge of returning, but the coaching staff is confident in Gilliam’s ability to lead the team.
Sanchez said Gilliam’s play has made the quarterback decision a win-win scenario for UNLV.
“We’ll see how [Rogers] progresses, but obviously we’re comfortable with Max in there,” Sanchez said. “He’s done a great job, led us to a big victory. If Armani at some point does get healthy, well now you’ve got two guys who can go in and play.”