Friday, Oct. 19, 2018 | 11:24 p.m.
Max Gilliam had his best game since taking over as starting quarterback, but it didn’t make a difference in the end, as the UNLV defense allowed Air Force to rack up nearly 600 yards of offense in a 41-35 victory for the Falcons at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Air Force rolled out to a 41-21 lead late in the third quarter before Gilliam led a late comeback attempt. Trailing by six with less than two minutes on the clock, Gilliam drove the Rebels to the Air Force 30-yard line, but a 4th-and-7 pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage.
Air Force ran out the clock from there, and UNLV now finds itself 0-3 in Mountain West play (2-5 overall).
After the game, head coach Tony Sanchez said UNLV simply couldn’t compete with Air Force’s players.
“The bottom line is, the execution wasn’t there,” Sanchez said. “Defensively, we struggled. I thought that they were more physical, especially going against our back-end guys. [We] struggled against their passing game early on.”
Yes, option-heavy Air Force dominated UNLV in the passing game. The Falcons only threw the ball 11 times on the night, but quarterback Isaiah Sanders completed nine of those passes for an astonishing 217 yards. That works out to 24.1 yards per completion.
According to Sanchez, the Rebels were counting on their defensive backs to win individual matchups against the Air Force receivers.
Those matchups almost all ended poorly for UNLV.
Sanchez said the game plan was sound, and that Air Force’s receivers overwhelmed UNLV’s defensive backs.
“The Jimmy’s and Joe’s,” Sanchez said. “Those guys were better than our guys in space. You saw that. You saw one-on-one coverage and our guys just getting beat.”
Air Force also had plenty of success on the ground, as their triple-option attack produced 355 rushing yards on 6.8 yards per carry. A 49-yard touchdown run by fullback Cole Fagan gave Air Force its biggest lead, 41-21, with 5:45 left in the third quarter.
UNLV responded with a 12-play, 75-yard drive that was kept alive when Gilliam hit Darren Woods for a clutch fourth-down conversion in Air Force territory. Running back Lexington Thomas finished the drive with a 1-yard run to make it 41-28.
After an Air Force fumble early in the fourth quarter, UNLV had a golden opportunity to draw even closer, but the drive went nowhere and Evan Pantels missed a 48-yard field goal. Air Force immediately gave the Rebels a mulligan, however, by fumbling again and allowing UNLV to recover near midfield. Gilliam cashed in on the second chance, hitting Brandon Presley in the back corner of the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown to make it 41-35 with 7:34 to play.
The UNLV defense came through again, holding Air Force to a 3-and-out and forcing a punt. Gilliam moved the Rebels to the Air Force 30, and the Rebels found themselves facing a 4th-and-7.
The Rebels called a back-side slant intended for Darren Woods, a play Gilliam said had worked a couple times earlier in the game. But an Air Force lineman tipped the pass at the line of scrimmage, and the ball never got close to Woods.
Gilliam finished 26-of-38 for 261 yards and three touchdowns, with one interception. Thomas ran for 108 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.
After an encouraging showing over the first four games of the season, UNLV’s defense has taken a huge step back. In the last three games, the Rebels have allowed 50.0 points and 492.7 yards per game.
UNLV may get a temporary reprieve thanks to the schedule. Next on the slate is Mountain West doormat San Jose State, which is 0-6 on the season and allowing opponents to score 41.3 points per game.