Mark J. Terrill / Assocaited Press
Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 | 6:09 p.m.
Eight seconds into the 2018 football season, UNLV appeared to be on the verge of disaster.
Star running back and senior captain Lexington Thomas took a handoff on the first play of Saturday’s contest at No. 15 USC, and after an offseason spent talking about bowl hopes (and a week spent talking about the need to send a competitive message early in this game), he did the unthinkable. Thomas fumbled, USC recovered, and that was that. A rout was sure to follow, and any hope-springs-eternal enthusiasm would wither, much like last year’s Howard loss cast a pall over the rest of the Rebels’ 2017 season.
But maybe this UNLV team is different.
USC eventually pulled away for a 43-21 victory, but not before UNLV was able to demonstrate a level of mental toughness (and the makings of a defensive backbone) that has not been present in recent years. The Rebels led for much of the first half and trailed 19-14 heading into the fourth quarter before USC’s passing game found its rhythm and the Trojans finished things off.
After Thomas’s fumble, the Rebels’ maligned defense held USC to one yard on three plays. The Trojans had to settle for a field goal and UNLV was able to minimize the damage, turning a worst-case scenario into a mere 3-0 deficit.
Later in the first quarter, Thomas was back to his usual self, ripping off a scintillating 71-yard touchdown run to give the Rebels a 7-6 lead.
After another USC field goal, sophomore quarterback Armani Rogers hit senior receiver Kendal Keys for a 31-yard touchdown to put UNLV ahead, 14-9, midway through the second quarter. USC returned the ensuing kickoff 73 yards to the UNLV 23, but the Rebels’ defense was up to the challenge again, holding on a short field and forcing another field goal to maintain a 14-12 lead.
Head coach Tony Sanchez credited the defense for coming up big and keeping UNLV in the game early despite being put in some tough situations.
“You think about early in the game, there were a couple times when the bough could break,” Sanchez said. “Our defense held. We kept holding [USC] to field goals. That was frustrating for them. They couldn’t put us away early on because of the way the defense played. So you hold a team like that to field goals, it gives your offense a chance to catch their wind and that’s exactly what we did. It’s just not panicking, believing in the process and settling in. I thought our guys did a really good job after a really bad first play of settling in, getting the 3-and-out, making them kick a field goal and keeping ourselves in the game.”
Of course, USC was the deeper and more talented team, and that difference became more defined as the game went on. The Trojans went on an 8-play, 79-yard touchdown drive in the final minute of the first half to take a 19-14 lead at the break, and UNLV was not able to threaten offensively the rest of the way.
USC was forced to punt on all three of its third-quarter possessions, but UNLV was unable to make up ground. The Rebels had two possessions while trailing, 19-14, but they were unable to make the kind of big play necessary to sustain the upset bid. UNLV gained just 58 yards on the two drives, and USC freshman quarterback J.T. Daniels hit freshman receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown for a 43-yard touchdown on the first play of the fourth quarter to open things up and give the Trojans a 26-14 advantage.
UNLV punted again on its next drive, and USC cemented the victory with a 15-yard touchdown run by Aca’Cedric Ware to make it 33-14.
Sanchez said the Rebels’ inability to move the ball when the game was still in reach was what ultimately cost them.
“That’s probably the difference,” he said. “Early in the game we took a bunch of shots and we had a bunch of situations where we had one-on-one in space, and we almost came up with a couple of those. We’ve got to win those battles. We win those battles in space — Keys a couple of times, we had [Drew] Tejchman down the field one time — you’ve got to win a couple of those and then all of a sudden you’ve got a different game on your hands.”
Rogers completed 12-of-27 passes on the day (44.4 percent) for just 97 yards, though he did throw two touchdown passes (with no interceptions). He was more effective on the ground, running for 82 yards on 18 carries. Thomas finished with 136 yards on 14 carries. As a team, UNLV ran for 308 yards at 7.2 per attempt.
Despite the long stretches of ineffectiveness in the second and third quarters, Rogers said he was confident in the offense.
“I definitely see the sparks that we had on offense and I’m definitely excited for it,” Rogers said. “We just have to capitalize on different plays and different situations and be a little more consistent in the passing game. You see what the running game can do. We have dominant backs out there that can do different things for us.”
The Rebels’ defense looked much improved under first-year coordinator Tim Skipper, as UNLV held USC to 5.3 yards per play through three quarters while generating consistent pressure on Daniels.
UNLV finished with 2.0 sacks and 6.0 tackles for loss with six pass breakups. The Rebels began to slow in the fourth quarter, and Daniels racked up nearly half of his 282 passing yards in that frame. USC averaged 11.9 yards per play in the fourth.
The mood in the UNLV post-game session was one of optimism and confidence. After pushing USC for three quarters, the Rebels look like a team that can win six of its next 11 games, which would qualify the team for a bowl game for the first time since 2013 (and the first time under Sanchez).
Sanchez thinks the Rebels that showed up on Saturday are certainly capable of earning a postseason berth.
“I think we proved we had 12 winnable games on our schedule,” Sanchez said. “There’s definitely 11 [remaining]. It’s going to be hard as heck to do that, but we’ve got a good football team.”