December 15, 2018 Currently: 51° | Complete forecast

Analysis: Rebels suffer toughest loss of disappointing season at Hawaii

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Steve Marcus

UNLV Rebels head coach Tony Sanchez leaves the field with players after a 3-48 loss to Fresno State Bulldogs at Sam Boyd Stadium Saturday, Nov. 3, 2018.

In a season that has seen the UNLV football team stack up eight losses against just three wins, Saturday’s defeat at Hawaii had to be the most painful.

Armed with separate leads of 21-3 and 28-13 (with the latter coming in the fourth quarter), it looked like the Rebels were on their way to a second-straight road win until a series of offensive and defensive breakdowns allowed Hawaii to storm back and steal a 35-28 decision.

Both sides of the ball were equally at fault for handing the game to Hawaii. Some of the key moments:

Short yardage stuffed

UNLV went for it on a pair of fourth downs in the second half, and on both plays the Hawaii defense was able to stuff Lexington Thomas for no gain. The second such turnover on downs may have been the biggest play of the entire game, as UNLV faced a 4th-and-1 at the Hawaii 46 midway through the fourth quarter. UNLV, which was protecting a 28-21 lead at the time, lined up in a big formation and Thomas was unable to find any daylight.

A first down conversion there would have extended the drive deeper into Hawaii territory, taken more valuable time off the clock, and increased UNLV’s win probability closer to 100 percent. Instead, Hawaii took over and scored seven plays later when freshman quarterback Chevan Cordeiro fired a 20-yard touchdown pass to tie the game.

Head coach Tony Sanchez pointed to the stalled fourth-down plays as the pivotal sequences.

“In the fourth quarter, it really came down to a couple of fourth downs,” Sanchez told ESPN Radio after the game. “You’ve got to be able to convert those things. [Hawaii] did a good job adjusting on defense and they were playing pretty stout, but at the end of the day, in that situation, you have a 4th-and-1, you keep them off the field and you can continue to roll that clock. You’ve got to convert that.”

Though Thomas finished with 129 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries, he probably needed one more yard in order to deliver the win for UNLV.

Defensive breakdowns

After playing a superb first half in which they allowed just six points, the Rebels’ defense evaporated over the final 15 minutes.

Hawaii made a bold move in benching starting quarterback Cole McDonald in favor of freshman Chevan Cordeiro, and it paid off in a big way. Cordeiro’s second play from scrimmage was a 64-yard touchdown pass, and he ended up leading Hawaii to three touchdowns in his three drives.

With the game tied, 28-28, and less than three minutes on the clock, Cordeiro hit a completely uncovered John Ursua for a 68-yard score down the right sideline. That proved to be the game-winner.

Cordeiro finished 4-of-5 for 153 yards and three touchdowns — all in the fourth quarter.

Sanchez said the UNLV defense simply melted down when it mattered most.

“Defensively, some of those blown coverages were unbelievable,” Sanchez told ESPN Radio. “We were so good early in the game, and at the most important time we just had some breakdowns.”

Rogers struggles in return

Sophomore quarterback Armani Rogers returned after missing the past seven games due to injury, but it was not a storybook comeback. Rogers struggled mightily in the passing game (5-of-15, 60 yards, one touchdown), and when the game was on the line he was unable to move the offense at all.

After Hawaii took the lead late in the fourth quarter, the Rebels had one final chance for a 2-minute drill to tie the game. Taking over at the 7-yard line, Rogers fired three straight incomplete passes, then took a sack on fourth down to give the ball back to Hawaii.

Over UNLV’s final two drives, Rogers completed 1-of-6 passes for 15 yards.

Sophomore Max Gilliam wasn’t brilliant on the night (5-of-9, 27 yards, one touchdown), but Sanchez will have a decision to make about which QB to start in the season finale against UNR.

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

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