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Blog: Air Force holds off UNLV, 41-35


Steve Marcus

UNLV wide receiver Darren Woods Jr. (10) pulls in a touchdown pass over Air Force defensive back Zane Lewis (6) during the first half of a football game at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas Friday, Oct. 19, 2018.

Updated Friday, Oct. 19, 2018 | 10:19 p.m.

UNLV's comeback attempt came up short, and Air Force held on for a wild 41-35 win at Sam Boyd Stadium.

The Rebels trailed, 41-21, late in the third quarter, but quarterback Max Gilliam put together a pair of consecutive touchdown drives to lead a rally. UNLV had a chance to take the lead late, but Gilliam's 4th-down pass was batted down and Air Force was able to run out the final two minutes.

The UNLV defense struggled mightily again, allowing Air Force to run for 345 yards and pass for 217 yards.

Gilliam completed 26-of-38 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns, while Lexington Thomas ran for 108 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.

UNLV is now 0-3 in Mountain West play and 2-5 overall.

Gilliam leading late comeback attempt for UNLV

The Rebels aren't out of this one just yet. After an Air Force fumble, Max Gilliam threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to Brandon Presley, and the Rebels are back within 41-35 with 7:34 to play.

Gilliam is now 21-of-32 on the night for 222 yards and three touchdowns. This has been his best showing by far, and if the UNLV defense can somehow come up with one more stop, Gilliam could be in position to win this one for the Rebels.

Air Force leads UNLV in fourth quarter

Lexington Thomas punched in a 1-yard touchdown run at the end of the third quarter, but UNLV is in deep trouble, as Air Force will take a 41-28 lead into the fourth quarter.

A 49-yard touchdown run by Cole Fagan gave Air Force a 41-21 advantage with 5:45 left in the quarter, and it looked like the Rebels were dead in the water. But Max Gilliam responded by leading a 75-yard drive which included a clutch 4th-down conversion pass to Darren Woods to keep the possession alive. Two plays later, Thomas scored to make it a two-score game again.

The Rebels' defense has been shredded for the entirety of the game — Air Force has not been forced to punt yet — so comeback chances have to be low. But if UNLV can get just one stop, and Gilliam can come through with another scoring drive, this game could still end up going down to the final minutes. Getting the stop will be the hard part, but the Rebels have 15 more minutes to prove they are up to the task.

Air Force throwing all over Rebels

Isaiah Sanders just tossed the easiest 64-yard touchdown pass of his life, and Air Force has extended its lead over UNLV to 34-21 midway through the third quarter.

Ronald Cleveland snuck out of the backfield uncovered on the play and flew down the left sideline, where Sanders hit him in stride for the walk-in TD. Sanders is now 8-of-8 for the game, withe 214 yards and a pair of touchdown passes.

UNLV leads Air Force at half, 21-20

Air Force drove down the field for a touchdown in the closing seconds of the first half, and UNLV's lead has been trimmed to 21-20 at the break.

Despite being known primarily as an option rush offense, Air Force quarterback Isaiah Sanders drove the Falcons with his arm, completing three passes for 70 yards on the drive. Sanders finished it off with a 3-yard touchdown run with 33 seconds left on the clock.

UNLV took a 21-13 lead on Max Gilliam's second touchdown pass of the night, as he found receiver Darren Woods in the end zone for the second time. Gilliam led Woods beautifully for a 13-yard score with 3:53 remaining, setting the stage for Air Force's drive.

Gilliam has played his best half since taking over as the starting QB, as he completed 13-of-17 passes for 139 yards and two touchdowns.

Lexington Thomas strikes, UNLV leads Air Force

Lexington Thomas is back. The senior running back is famous for busting long runs, and he just did it again, breaking free for a 74-yard touchdown run that gave UNLV a 14-6 lead in the second quarter.

Thomas took a handoff heading left, then cut back through a gaping hole on the right side and sprinted the length of the field untouched. It was his longest run of the season, and his longest since Week 3 of the 2016 season. The 74 yards also represented more yardage than he rushed for in either of UNLV's last two games.

Air Force responded to Thomas' run with an 8-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, and the Rebels' lead is now 14-13 midway through the second quarter.

UNLV takes early lead over Air Force

UNLV has an early lead over Air Force thanks to a 10-yard touchdown pass from Max Gilliam to Darren Woods.

After allowing a field goal on Air Force's first possession, UNLV took over and drove 92 yards for the go-ahead score. Gilliam completed 5-of-9 passes for 75 yards on the drive, including a key third-down conversion to freshman Tyleek Collins for 20 yards. Two plays later, Gilliam hit Woods with a back-shoulder throw to take the lead with 2:16 left in the first quarter.

Previewing UNLV football vs. Air Force with reader questions

Friday is shaping up to be a big day for UNLV sports. Not only will the football team host Air Force in a must-win situation (7 p.m., CBS Sports Network), but the basketball team will provide some pre-game entertainment with a preseason showcase event at Sam Boyd Stadium (5:30 p.m., free to the public).

With that in mind, let’s run through some reader questions and talkabouts to preview the big day:


What would need to happen before Oblad would get in the game? Injury? Poor performance by Gilliam? How poor of a performance.


Current starter Max Gilliam would have to play really, really poorly in order to lose his job. Head coach Tony Sanchez was asked about the possibility of true freshman Kenyon Oblad seeing some action this week, and Sanchez came out strongly in support of Gilliam. Though he left the door open for Oblad to see some playing time toward the end of the season (the Rebels want to play him in four games or fewer in order to maintain his redshirt status), it sounds like Gilliam will be the unquestioned starter, barring injury or some other unforeseen circumstance.


Do you see Menzies using Juiston at the 4 majority of the time vs using him at the 5 playing small ball?


I think UNLV’s best offensive lineup will include Juiston at the 5 and Tervell Beck at the 4, but that pairing leaves the Rebels small in the frontcourt. And Marvin Menzies has historically shown that he does not like going small. He likes a traditional big man in the paint, so I expect him to open the season with Mbacke Diong at center. Diong is not an offensive threat outside of three feet, but he’ll give the team a rim protector and another big body on the glass. Will Menzies be open to playing smaller if certain opponents provide matchup issues? That remains to be seen. I think he’ll give the big lineups every opportunity to make it work.


Will UNLV win another game this year? If not is Sanchez safe?


I think the Rebels can get at least one more game. They’ve got a road trip to San Jose State coming up next week, and they should be favored in that game. After that, nothing is guaranteed. UNR in the season finale may be the next-best opportunity, but Armani Rogers’ health status makes that one tough to predict from so far out.

As far as Sanchez, he probably has to win at least two more in order to feel completely safe. And if UNLV loses today and then somehow gets beat at San Jose State … well, that will be difficult to explain to the athletic director after the season.


Talk to me about how UNLV could finish Top 3 in MWC B-ball.


That’s a tough sell, but not impossible. The Mountain West is obviously a two-team league this year, with UNR entrenched as the runaway favorite and San Diego State separated from the pack as the clear No. 2. After that, it gets a little jumbled.

In the league’s preseason poll, New Mexico, Boise State, Fresno State and UNLV (in that order) were bunched together pretty tightly in the 3-through-6 slots. So there is uncertainty in the middle of the conference, and UNLV’s uncertainty rides with its freshman class. It’s a talented group, and they are going to play a lot of minutes. If they perform better than expected, the Rebels could surprise in the regular season and challenge for the third spot. If they play like typical freshmen and need a year to develop, UNLV could languish in the 6, 7 or 8 spot in the standings.


Does Air Force go over 500 rushing yards???


I understand the trepidation, as Air Force absolutely tore UNLV’s defense to shreds in last year’s matchup, running the ball an astonishing 78 times for 401 yards. The Rebels were dismal when it came to defending option rushing attacks last year, and that Air Force game (a 34-30 comeback win for the Falcons) was the nadir.

I can’t guarantee that the Rebels will shut down the option this time around, but I can tell you that 500 yards won’t happen. Air Force is averaging 62.7 rush attempts per game this season for 248.3 yards, and as bad as UNLV has been at defending the run (5.2 yards per carry), it would take a complete and total collapse to see another disaster like last year’s game.

What Rebels fans should be worried about is the pass defense. UNLV has allowed 12.1 yards per pass attempt over the last two games and an ungodly 17.9 yards per completion. If there was ever a good time to face an option team who only throws it 14.7 times per game, it’s now.

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

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