Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018 | 11:31 p.m.
UNLV had plenty of chances to quit in Saturday’s season finale against UNR.
The Rebels could have given up after UNR drove the length of the field for three touchdowns to open the game, putting UNLV in an early 20-0 hole.
They could have folded when Max Gilliam fumbled on a quarterback draw in the second quarter without being touched by a defender, setting up a UNR field goal and a 23-0 deficit.
They even could have collapsed in the fourth quarter when, after working so hard to come back and improbably take the lead, UNR answered with a field goal to reclaim a 29-28 advantage with 11 minutes to play.
But UNLV clawed its way back each time, showing incredible resolve in fighting for an instant-classic 34-29 win over rival UNR at Sam Boyd Stadium. The victory allowed the Rebels to cap a 4-8 season by taking back the Fremont Cannon, which the players did with aplomb on the field after the final whistle.
Armani Rogers was the hero for UNLV, as the sophomore quarterback led the comeback by scoring five touchdowns — three passing, two rushing — including the go-ahead score with less than three minutes on the clock.
Rogers’ touted his teammates’ competitive spirit after the game.
“It’s a big accomplishment for us, especially with how the season has been going,” Rogers said. “And for us to go out there and keep fighting, it shows that the team, we don’t have any quit in us.”
It was a game UNLV had no business winning, especially after the first 16 minutes played out like a horror movie starring UNR quarterback Ty Gangi as the killer. Gangi’s second touchdown pass put UNR up, 14-0, midway through the first quarter, and Kelton Moore’s 46-yard scoring run made it 20-0 with 46 seconds left in the period.
It was 23-0 before UNLV began its comeback, with Rogers leading the way. Rogers started for the first time since Week 4, and after knocking off some rust, he proved unstoppable against a respectable UNR defense.
Rogers got the Rebels on the board in the second quarter by scrambling on 4th-and-8 and hitting Lexington Thomas out of the backfield for a 38-yard touchdown. Three minutes later, Rogers hit Giovanni Fauolo for an 18-yard TD, and with three minutes left in the half Rogers plowed through the UNR defense for a 1-yard score to pull UNLV within 23-21.
Rogers tossed a 1-yard touchdown to Noah Bean midway through the third quarter to give UNLV its first lead, 28-26.
UNR kicked a field goal with 11:21 to play to regain a 29-28 lead, and after two stalled UNLV drives, the Rebels’ chances looked bleak. UNR drove into UNLV territory looking to extend its lead, but Gangi was intercepted by junior linebacker Javin White with 6:02 on the clock.
Given a chance to win the cannon with one drive, Rogers came through. He steered the Rebels 73 yards in 12 plays, then crashed into the end zone from the 1-yard line to make it 34-29 with 2:34 remaining. The 2-point conversion failed, meaning the UNLV defense would either win or lose the game on the final drive.
UNR drove across midfield, but White came up clutch again, stepping in front of another Gangi pass for his second interception of the quarter. With the Wolf Pack out of timeouts, Rogers kneeled on the ball to run out the clock as UNLV players stormed the field in search of their cannon.
Rogers said he wasn’t worried about the UNLV defense holding up in the final minutes, making him perhaps the most confident man in the stadium.
“I knew they were going to make the stop,” Rogers said. “[In practice] we have a friendly competition during 2-minute drills. We win some, they lose some, and with the whole competition level I knew that we’ve been in that situation plenty of times. I knew the defense was going to go out there and capitalize.”
Rogers completed 13-of-20 passes for 172 yards, with three touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran for 46 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner.
It was one of the best single-game performances in UNLV history, and head coach Tony Sanchez paid tribute to his star QB after the contest.
“You saw the impact he had on the game,” Sanchez said. “He’s a special guy. He came in there and just played tremendous and gave us that opportunity to win that game.”
Sanchez is now 2-2 in his career against UNR, with the other win coming in 2015, his first season as UNLV coach.
Sanchez said this win, due to the intensity of the rivalry and the way in which UNLV had to persevere, could be a springboard for a young Rebels team to take into next season and beyond.
“It’s a big deal, winning the cannon,” Sanchez said. “It really is. The great thing too is, the intensity of the last 48 hours of the cannon, I think our young guys got indoctrinated to it really quick, which is a good thing. So now we’ve got to learn to keep it now.”