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Rebels fade late at USC, fall 43-21

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Mark J. Terrill / Assocaited Press

UNLV wide receiver Kendal Keys celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Southern California, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, in Los Angeles.

Updated Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018 | 3:49 p.m.

UNLV put a scare into USC for three quarters, but the No. 15 team in the nation pulled away over the final 15 minutes and eventually dispatched the Rebels, 43-21, on Saturday at the Memorial Coliseum.

Lexington Thomas broke free for a 71-yard touchdown run in the first quarter to give UNLV a 7-6 lead, and Armani Rogers threw a 31-yard touchdown pass to Kendal Keys in the second quarter to give the Rebels a surprising 14-9 advantage.

The Rebels’ defense did its best to make that score hold up, but USC went on an 8-play, 79-yard drive to close out the second quarter, with Vavae Malepeai scoring on a 2-yard run to give the Trojans a 19-14 lead at the half.

The third quarter was scoreless, with UNLV punting three times and USC punting twice, but J.T. Daniels threw a 43-yard touchdown pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown on the first play of the fourth quarter to finally give USC some breathing room with a 26-14 lead. After another UNLV punt on the ensuing possession, USC drove the field again, with Aca’Cedric Ware scoring on a 15-yard run to make it 33-14 with 12 minutes remaining.

Rogers responded by throwing a short touchdown pass to Giovanni Fauolo to pull UNLV within 33-21 with 8:08 remaining, but that was as close as the Rebels would get. USC tacked on a field goal on the next possession, and Malepeai got loose for a 20-yard touchdown in garbage time to account for the final margin.

Thomas finished with 130 yards rushing on 13 carries. Rogers completed 12-of-27 passes for 97 yards and two touchdowns while running 18 times for 105 yards.

UNLV is now 0-1 on the season and will need to win six of its next 11 games in order to qualify for a bowl berth. The Rebels face UTEP on Saturday in the home opener at Sam Boyd Stadium.

USC opens 33-14 lead over UNLV

USC has scored two quick touchdowns to open the fourth quarter, and UNLV's upset bid looks to be dead as the Rebels trail, 33-14, with 12:39 remaining.

J.T. Daniels fired a 43-yard touchdown pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown on the first play of the quarter to extend USC's lead to 26-14, and after UNLV punted on the ensuing possession, Daniels hit on another long pass to set up a 15-yard touchdown run by Aca'Cedric Ware to make it a 19-point margin.

The Rebels thought they had made a potential game-changing play by sacking Daniels and recovering his fumble in USC territory, but on replay it was ruled that the QB was down before he lost the ball. On the next play, Daniels hit Trevon Sidney for 41 yards, and Ware ran it in on the next play.

Upset-minded Rebels trail USC 19-14 in fourth quarter

The third quarter belonged to UNLV's defense, which forced two USC punts to keep the score at 19-14 heading into the fourth quarter.

UNLV had three offensive possessions in the quarter but wasn't able to gain any traction. One drive advanced past midfield, but USC recorded a sack on the next play to push the Rebels back.

USC has the ball in UNLV territory to begin the fourth quarter, with a 2nd-and-7 at the Rebels' 42. UNLV has done an excellent job defensively so far, allowing just 5.3 yards per play. If UNLV can make another defensive stand to start the fourth, the Rebels could be one big play away from taking the lead.

Rebels trail USC at half, 19-14

USC scored on a late touchdown drive to take a 19-14 lead over UNLV at halftime.

UNLV led, 14-12, when Evan Pantels missed a 39-yard field goal attempt. USC then drove 79 yards in eight plays, capped off by a Vavea Malepeai 2-yard touchdown run, to take the lead with 1:04 left in the half.

UNLV was able to advance past midfield on its ensuing 2-minute drill, but a holding call on 3rd-and-10 stalled the drive and the Rebels were forced to punt.

USC will receive the kickoff to start the second half, but the Rebels have to feel good about how the game has unfolded thus far. Though UNLV has allowed five scoring drives, the Rebels have played good red-zone defense and held USC to four field goals.

The Rebels have done a good job running the ball (20 carries, 199 yards), with Lexington Thomas's 71-yard touchdown run being the key play. Armani Rogers is just 4-of-13 throwing the ball, however, and UNLV has just 36 passing yards.

Rogers touchdown pass puts UNLV ahead in second quarter

UNLV just got tricky, and it led to a go-ahead touchdown.

The Rebels ran a fake punt from deep in their own territory, and Evan Austrie strambled 36 yards into USC territory. Three plays later, Armani Rogers hit Kendal Keys with a beautiful 29-yard touchdown pass to give UNLV a 14-9 lead early in the second quarter.

USC drove for a field goal on the ensuing possession (thanks in large part to a 73-yard kickoff return), and the Rebels' lead is now 14-12 with 9:19 left in the first half.

UNLV leads USC, 7-6

Lexington Thomas more than made up for his early fumble with a 71-yard touchdown run, and UNLV has an unexpected 7-6 lead at the end of the first quarter.

UNLV ran a fake end-around with Thomas miming a pitch to the reverse man, but Thomas kept the ball and streaked down the right sideline untouched for his first touchdown of the season. He has 87 yards rushing on the day.

USC took the ensuing kickoff and drove down to the UNLV 20 before the first quarter came to a close. The Trojans will face a 2nd-and-2 when the second quarter begins.

Rebels trail at USC, 3-0

UNLV couldn't have gotten off to a worse start, as senior running back Lexington Thomas fumbled on the first play of the game and USC recovered at the Rebels' 29-yard line. But the UNLV defense made a stand, holding USC to just one yard on the next three plays and forcing the Trojans to settle for a 46-yard field goal.

The Rebels didn't have much more success on their second drive, as quarterback Armani Rogers was sacked on second down for a big loss. After a punt, the UNLV defense held again, forcing a 3-and-out.

The offense will have to start producing at some point, but through the first seven minutes, the defense has kept the Rebels in the game.

Three keys for UNLV football at USC

UNLV will kick off against No. 15 USC on Saturday (1 p.m., Pac-12 Network) as a 26.5-point underdog, so there’s really no downside for the Rebels in the 2018 season opener. But if they manage to keep the game within reach for a half — or even longer — that’s something UNLV can build on as it begins its quest for bowl eligibility.

Are the Rebels capable of pushing USC — at the Coliseum, no less?

Three keys for UNLV football at USC:

Run the ball

This is an obvious point, but it’s too important to gloss over. UNLV is first and foremost a running team, and if the Rebels don’t have a dominant day on the ground they’ll have no chance of keeping up with USC.

Senior running back Lexington Thomas may be the primary ball-carrier in the backfield, but sophomore quarterback Armani Rogers could end up being the key on Saturday. The 6-foot-5 Los Angeles native is at his best when he’s operating the zone-read, and he did it at a high level as a freshman (780 yards, eight touchdowns, 5.3 yards per carry). USC had some trouble defending running QB’s last year — the Trojans gave up 106 rushing yards to QB Brandon Wimbush in a loss to Notre Dame last year, and 66 yards and two touchdowns to J.T. Barrett in a loss to Ohio State – so there will be running lanes available when Rogers keeps the ball.

If Rogers can produce around 100 yards on the ground and find the end zone once or twice, UNLV may be able to keep the game competitive.

Limit explosive plays

USC fielded one of the best offenses in the country last year, and even with true freshman J.T. Daniels replacing Sam Darnold at quarterback, the Trojans figure to be explosive on that side of the ball again. UNLV will have trouble matching up personnel-wise, especially when it comes to rushing the passer — the Rebels’ sack rate of 3.3 percent ranked 123rd in the nation last year, and the front seven hasn’t been upgraded in any major way.

UNLV’s best bet will be to focus on limiting big plays. If the Rebels’ defense can at least force USC into long, methodical drives, it will serve the dual purpose of giving Daniels more opportunities to make freshman mistakes while shortening the game at the same time. That type of game plan will put a lot of pressure on safeties Dalton Baker and Evan Austrie to keep all the action in front of them. And UNLV will probably have to force at least one turnover in order to compete, so if Daniels does make a mistake, Baker and Austrie will have to capitalize.

No special teams

In the spirit of limiting explosive plays, UNLV would be best served to opt out of all special-teams situations on Saturday. The Rebels haven’t been good on special teams in years, and USC will have a massive edge in athleticism on all punt and kickoff returns; putting UNLV’s second- and third-stringers in the open field and asking them to cover kicks would be asking for trouble.

Tony Sanchez has talked about getting creative on kickoffs due to the new rule changes, and this might be the time to try pooch kicks and squibs designed to minimize return opportunities. USC will have enough of an advantage on offense, there’s no reason to give the Trojans free yards with shoddy kick coverage. UNLV should punt the ball out of bounds, force fair catches on kickoffs and live to defend another play.

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

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