Eli Lucero / The Herald Journal via AP
Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018 | 5:29 p.m.
Utah State scored five touchdowns in a nine-minute span during the first half — with three of them assisted by UNLV miscues — and rolled to a 59-28 win over a demoralized Rebels team on Saturday.
It was the second straight game in which UNLV allowed an opponent to ring up 50 points, following on the heels of an equally embarrassing 50-14 loss to New Mexico last week. The Rebels are now 2-4 on the season, and their bowl hopes continue to slip away while sophomore quarterback Armani Rogers remains sidelined due to injury.
UNLV defensive lineman Jameer Outsey expressed frustration with the Rebels’ inability to get out of their own way during Utah State’s scoring avalanche.
“I think we shot ourselves in the foot,” Outsey said. “Unnecessary things that could have been avoided really crushed us in the end. I don’t think we executed the game plan as we were supposed to. I think we killed ourselves in this one.”
Utah State began its onslaught late in the first quarter, when quarterback Jordan Love hit Nathan Jordan for a 24-yard touchdown to tie the game, 7-7. Less than three minutes later, USU caught a big break when a UNLV defensive lineman jumped offside at the snap. Anticipating a whistle, Rebels cornerback Alex Perry stopped running; the play wasn’t blown dead, however, and USU receiver Jalen Greene ran past the stationary Perry for an easy 80-yard touchdown catch.
UNLV’s next drive was killed when sophomore quarterback Max Gilliam tossed an interception while trying to make a play outside the pocket. Working with a short field, it took Utah State just two plays to cash in, as Love hit Savon Scarver for a 26-yard score to make it 21-7.
When UNLV’s ensuing possession failed to yield a first down, the Rebels were forced to punt from their own territory. A block was missed up front, and Utah State swarmed punter Hayes Hicken. The kick was blocked and USU’s Baron Gajkowski ran it back 16 yards for another touchdown to make it 28-7 with 11:35 left in the second quarter.
Another UNLV punt gave Utah State the ball at midfield, and the Aggies only needed four plays before Deven Thompkins scored on a 7-yard run.
The game was over at that point. Utah State tacked on another seven points on a Love touchdown pass with 18 seconds left in the half, and UNLV didn’t score again until midway through the third quarter, long after the contest had been decided by those nine hellish minutes.
Head coach Tony Sanchez, who put the onus on his players for last week’s loss to New Mexico, said the Rebels gave away too many points to a good Utah State team.
“We’ve got a guy that jumps offside on defense — you can’t stop,” Sanchez said. “Our corner stops playing the play because he thinks the play is dead. The whistle didn’t blow, the play is not dead. It’s a free touchdown. Then we’ve got a guy who slides the wrong way on a punt protection, it’s another free touchdown. We make a bad read again and throw a pick inside the 30. Twenty-one points we gave them without doing anything.”
As hard as it may be to believe, considering everything that came after, UNLV looked plucky and upset-minded for the first 10 minutes or so. The Rebels defense got stops on each of Utah State’s first two possessions, and Lexington Thomas gave UNLV a 7-0 lead with a 1-yard touchdown run with 5:38 left in the first quarter.
At that point, the Rebels looked light years ahead of the version we saw against New Mexico last week. In that game, it took 26 minutes before UNLV recorded a first down; against Utah State, Gilliam set up Thomas’s touchdown by converting a pair of third downs with sharp passing.
Thomas’s plunge proved to be the high point of the game for UNLV, however. After Utah State scored on its next six possessions, Thomas was knocked out of the game on the Rebels’ first drive of the second half when he took a blow directly to the helmet. Sanchez couldn’t give an update on Thomas’s status after the game, only saying that the senior captain was in pain as he was helped off the field. Thomas finished with a team-high 51 yards on 12 carries.
As promising as UNLV’s defense looked through the first four weeks under new coordinator Tim Skipper, that unit has struggled mightily the last two weeks. Utah State racked up 598 yards of offense and averaged 8.7 yards per play, while Love’s five touchdown passes tied a school record.
Coming off back-to-back demoralizing losses, Outsey expressed some concern that the team might be tempted to quit on the season but said the locker-room leaders will do whatever it takes to hold things together.
“We’ll address all that in the players’ meeting [on Sunday],” Outsey said. “We’ll make sure everybody stays focused and stays within it. The season’s not over. We’re halfway done. We still can get to a bowl game, we still can do all the goals that we set out to achieve. You can’t really think about stuff like that right now.”
Though Rogers is still four weeks away from returning, the schedule does provide a glimmer of hope for the Rebels. Up next is a homecoming matchup against Air Force on Friday, and though UNLV will likely go into that game as an underdog, it represents one of the more winnable contests still left on the slate. After that, the Rebels travel to league doormat San Jose State.
Is it farfetched to believe this Rebels team, as bad as they’ve looked the last two weeks, can somehow win two straight to get back to 4-4? Sanchez doesn’t think so.
“The bottom line is, we’re sitting now at 2-4, you’ve got Air Force coming to town. You’ve got to win that darn game, get yourself right back there to 3-4 with an opportunity to go on the road to San Jose. You get back into it by chipping away at it.
“You can’t get too far ahead of yourself,” he continued. “We were here before actually with a worse record last year, won three of four and got ourselves right back into the mix. Can we do it? Absolutely.”