Jacob Wiegand / The Jonesboro Sun via AP
Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018 | 8:45 p.m.
UNLV played its worst game of the season and blew a fourth-quarter lead in a 27-20 loss at Arkansas State on Saturday.
The Rebels committed four turnovers — really five — and gave away a game that they should have won. Now UNLV will head into its bye week with a 2-2 record, wondering how they let such a winnable game slip away.
“That’s a tough one to swallow there,” head coach Tony Sanchez said. “I feel like at times we did what we needed to do to put ourselves in position to win the game. Too many unforced errors.”
Despite a slew of special-teams blunders, UNLV recovered to take a 20-19 lead late in the third quarter on a 10-yard touchdown run by Lexington Thomas. The 2-point conversion failed, but the UNLV defense forced a 3-and-out on Arkansas State’s ensuing possession and the Rebels went into the fourth quarter with the ball and the lead.
Things went downhill from there. Armani Rogers misfired on a third-down pass, forcing the Rebels to punt. Arkansas State needed just three plays before freshman running back Marcel Murray broke free for a 39-yard touchdown to give the Red Wolves a 21-20 advantage.
UNLV never threatened offensively again. Rogers completed just 1-of-8 passes in the fourth quarter, and the completion was a touch pass to Tyleek Collins for minus-1 yard. Many of Rogers’s attempts sailed high over the heads of receivers, including an interception on a 3rd-and-20 desperation heave with six minutes remaining.
The Rebels defense got a stop after the pick and gave Rogers one more chance, starting from the UNLV 23-yard line with 1:52 on the clock and no timeouts. Rogers missed on his first two passes, then scrambled for 11 yards to pick up a first down. He missed on his next two attempts, and on 4th-and-19 he was stripped from behind during his windup. UNLV recovered the fumble, but in reality it was the Rebels’ fifth turnover and sealed the loss.
Rogers had an amazing night running the ball (181 yards and a touchdown on a career-high 26 carries), but his passing line was pretty close to rock bottom: 5-of-21 for 23 yards and three interceptions.
Sanchez said the rainy weather throughout the game may have made it difficult for Rogers to throw accurately, though Arkansas State quarterback Justice Hansen managed to go 19-of-27 for 199 yards and three touchdowns (with no interceptions).
“The ball really sailed on him,” Sanchez said. “The way that ball was coming off and shooting straight out, he hasn’t thrown the ball like that before. And some of those balls came out turning sideways. For whatever reason, we didn’t handle the ball being damp as well as they did.”
Rogers said the wet ball affected him, but stopped short of blaming the weather for the failure of the passing game.
“That was a factor,” Rogers said, “but at the end of the day I have to figure it out and complete the balls.”
Rogers may not have been in the position of having to orchestrate a 2-minute drill in the rain with the game on the line if the Rebels had taken care of business on special teams. UNLV mishandled two punts and a kickoff, and one muffed punt was recovered by Arkansas State at the 2-yard line.
The Red Wolves scored on the next play, giving them a 19-7 lead early in the third quarter. Though the Rebels bounced back and eventually regained the lead, that 7-point swing loomed large throughout the rest of the game.
“That muffed punt really killed us at the end,” Sanchez said. “That doesn’t happen, it’s a whole different ball game.”
The return game has been a recurring issue for the Rebels through the early part of the season. Junior receiver Brandon Presley has gotten most of the reps at punt returner, but he has now lost fumbles two weeks in a row. After dropping the third-quarter punt that led to the Arkansas State touchdown, Presley mishandled the ensuing kickoff. Though he was able to scoop that one off the ground and retain possession, he was tackled immediately and UNLV was pinned inside the 20-yard line.
UNLV will have two weeks to work on those problem areas, as they’ll have a bye before opening Mountain West play at home against New Mexico on Oct. 6.