Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018 | 9:51 p.m.
As far as blueprints go, UNLV’s is pretty straightforward: Run the ball in dominant fashion, and when defenses try to crowd the line of scrimmage as a counter, use a vertical passing attack to strike for big plays through the air.
The Rebels followed that plan to perfection against UTEP on Saturday, playing a flawless offensive game and rolling to a 52-24 win in the home opener at Sam Boyd Stadium. UNLV is now 1-1 on the season.
UNLV put together five touchdown drives in the first half, using a blend of power running (277 rushing yards on 8.8 yards per attempt) and deep passing (24.8 yards per completion) to bury lowly UTEP under an avalanche of points.
Armani Rogers started the scoring by hitting Mekhi Stevenson over the top for a 51-yard touchdown less than three minutes into the contest. After opening the game with three handoffs for 25 yards, Rogers caught the defense off-balance and connected with Stevenson in stride as he ran past the UTEP secondary.
After barely missing on several deep throws in a Week 1 loss at USC, Rogers said it was important to notch a big play early against UTEP.
“That definitely was a big play for us,” Rogers said. “From watching film I knew exactly what they were doing when the nickel came up. I knew the routes we had. As soon as we came up, I knew [Stevenson] was going to be wide open right there.”
After UTEP responded with a touchdown drive of its own, UNLV went right down the field again, finishing off a 7-play, 75-yard drive with a 5-yard touchdown run by freshman Tyleek Collins.
Rogers called his own number on the next drive, breaking free for a 28-yard touchdown run. Then Lexington Thomas squeezed through a crowd of tacklers and came out the other side for a 40-yard TD run to make it 28-10.
The defense even followed the blueprint. Though the unit struggled to contain UTEP’s rushing attack throughout the first half, Javin White intercepted a deep ball inside the 10-yard line with 1:49 on the clock. Rogers did the rest, breaking off a 35-yard run before hitting Darren Woods with a 22-yard scoring pass with 22 seconds left in the half.
UNLV took a 38-10 lead into the break and cruised to its easiest win since beating Jackson State, 63-13, to open the 2016 season.
The offensive explosion — and the complementary defense — was exactly what UNLV wants to be this season.
Head coach Tony Sanchez said he was disappointed that the Rebels’ level of play slipped later in the game once the outcome was in doubt, but their first-half performance earned his stamp of approval.
“It was good to see us come out offensively and get that score right away,” Sanchez said. “We scored on five of the first six possessions — that was good to see. Defensively we started a little slower than we did the week before, but that first half was pretty good, clean football.”
Any chance of a UTEP comeback was stomped out early in the second half. The Miners received the kickoff to open the third quarter but fumbled on the first play from scrimmage. UNLV recovered inside the 20, and two plays later Thomas danced into the end zone to make it 45-10.
Rogers added a third touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter, flipping a 3-yarder to Collins. Rogers finished 6-of-13 for 119 yards, with three touchdowns and zero interceptions. He also ran for 103 yards and a score.
UNLV finished with 414 rushing yards, a team high since Sanchez took over in 2015. The Rebels racked up 7.4 yards per carry, with Charles Williams chipping in 80 yards on 12 carries and Xzaviar Campbell adding 72 yards on 10 carries.
UNLV came into the game as a 23.5-point favorite, and after losing at USC last week, the Rebels needed a win to get back to .500 and stay on track for eventual bowl eligibility.
The Rebels will host Prairie View A&M next week and will be favored to improve to 2-1.