Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau
Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018 | 4:36 p.m.
Going into Saturday’s home game against New Mexico, UNLV was still harboring hopes of making it to a bowl game this season.
About 90 minutes after kickoff, the bar had been lowered to the point that the Rebels were just hoping to make it 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage to earn a first down.
The UNLV offense was a complete no-show in sophomore Max Gilliam’s first start at quarterback, and New Mexico handed the Rebels an embarrassing 50-14 defeat in the Mountain West opener.
The play on the field was even more one-sided than the score may indicate. UNLV did not record a first down until late in the second quarter, by which time New Mexico had already buried the Rebels in a 29-0 hole. For the game, New Mexico out-gained UNLV, 502 yards to 166. Time of possession favored the Lobos by a margin of 36:48 to 23:12.
After the game, head coach Tony Sanchez didn’t hold back in questioning his team’s toughness.
“Bad football,” Sanchez said. “I’m so disappointed in us right now.”
“Every one of those guys has got to sit there and look at themselves and ask themselves how bad they want this,” he continued, “and we’ve got to figure out who wants to be here and who wants to roll. We had two weeks off and it looks like we were still on vacation.”
Gilliam was extremely shaky in taking over for injured starter Armani Rogers. His first pass was an easy swing to running back Lexington Thomas on first down, but nerves (presumably) caused Gilliam to fire the ball into the dirt at Thomas’s feet. The Rebels’ second offensive play saw the snap bounce off Gilliam’s knee, with the QB covering up the loose ball for a loss of yardage. On third down, Gilliam and wide receiver Mekhi Stevenson were not on the same page, as Stevenson cut his route off short and Gilliam sailed a deep ball 20 yards beyond the receiver.
It was still a scoreless game two possessions later, when Gilliam’s first-down pass was intercepted by New Mexico linebacker Evahelotu Tohi, who returned it inside the Rebels’ red zone. Lobos’ running back Zahneer Shuler scored five plays later on a 1-yard run to give UNM a 6-0 lead.
Another 3-and-out from the UNLV offense was followed by New Mexico marching 56 yards in eight plays, and Tyrone Owens did the honors with a 1-yard TD plunge.
The rout was on from there. Gilliam went 6-of-13 in the half for just 23 yards, and the Rebels didn’t gain a first down until their final drive of the second quarter. Instead of leaning on Thomas in the running game, the senior back got just three carries in the first half and gained seven yards.
Sanchez singled out Thomas by name as not giving enough effort.
“You’ve got to run harder,” Sanchez said. “I talked to him about that. [Charles Williams], it felt like he was running harder, putting his head down. It’s not on [Thomas], it’s everything…You catch a swing route, don’t go out of bounds. Go get the extra yard.
“You have to commit to playing a physical, violent football game,” Sanchez continued. “Every damn snap.”
New Mexico quarterback Sheriron Jones — a backup himself — threw touchdown passes of 74 and 26 yards on the Lobos’ final two drives of the first half to give UNM a 29-0 lead going into the break.
UNLV never threatened in the second half. Gilliam found more room to operate in garbage time and finished with a passing line of 15-of-35 for 123 yards, with two touchdowns and one interception.
UNLV finished with 13 first downs and managed to gain a paltry 2.7 yards per play.
Gilliam disagreed with Sanchez’s assertion that the Rebels weren’t tough enough, putting most of the blame on execution.
“I know my guys are always fighting,” Gilliam said. “I know we’re always going to fight. We’ve just got to execute, and I think we didn’t execute very well. I think we’ll fix it.
At 2-3, the Rebels’ bowl dreams may already be on life support. Rogers is set to miss the next five weeks, and a trip to Utah State looms next week. The 4-1 Aggies are coming off a 45-20 demolition of BYU on Saturday.
Sanchez said UNLV can compete with Utah State, but only if they play well and play with toughness. Otherwise, the Rebels could be in for another demoralizing drubbing.
“Next week, Utah State — can we win that game? Yeah you can win that game. The same thing can happen too if we come out and we’re dropping balls, we’re snapping balls over guys’ heads and we’re making the wrong checks and we’re not tackling well and those things are happening. It can be ugly again. It’s a gut-check time for quite a few guys in our locker room.”