UNLV Loses Winnable Road Game At Northwestern, 30-14


When UNLV took its first lead of the football game early in the second quarter against Big Ten opponent Northwestern, the Rebels looked as if they could steal a win in Evanston. Down just 16-14 at half with a ground game that included 132 rushing yards from Charles Williams, it looked like the Rebels were poised for a strong second half. Then, something happened: UNLV handed the ball to Williams just four times in the second half en route to a 30-14 loss.

A winnable game on the road and UNLV’s coaching staff decided to go away from the established run in the second half resulted in zero points and to just 17 plays on the next five possessions while the Wildcats ran over an exhausted UNLV defense. In a collection of disappointing failures under coach Tony Sanchez, this loss hurt worse because the Rebels had a chance for a signature win and, instead, leave Evanston looking for more answers.

In his postgame interview, Sanchez chose to shift the blame to his players for penalties, a missed field goal and turnovers. The fifth-year UNLV coach didn’t address why the team chose to go away from its running game, only saying the Northwestern defense was keying in on Williams while the passing game struggled.

Quarterback Armani Rogers, who is a fantastic athlete, was asked to go away from his strengths once again. The third-year quarterback threw an interception on his first possession of the second half, and UNLV fans could sense what was coming. Northwestern outscored the Rebels 14-0 the rest of the way against a defense that played its heart out despite being put into short-field situations and limited rest on the road.

Rogers finished 16-of-26 for just 120 yards and the interception but had multiple passes nearly picked throughout the game. Sanchez and Co. continually asked the quarterback to play away from his strongest attributes. Former UNLV quarterback Caleb Herring had plenty to say about the coaching staff’s decision.

Despite rushing for 132 yards on 12 carries in the first half, Williams finished with 16 carries and 144 yards. His two TD runs were explosive and impressive, carrying the hopes of UNLV fans into the break, before the mind-boggling game plan change in the second half.

Why UNLV chose to go away from Williams will be debated all week. With Sanchez coaching for his job, the Northwestern game is going to be a huge negative. This was a very winnable game. UNLV seemed to have control of the game until the second half started with an immediate interception, just like last week’s embarrassing 43-17 loss to Arkansas State started.

From that point on, UNLV’s offense never made as much of a whimper, with its largest gains in the second half coming on two questionable pass interference calls against the Wildcats.

When your best passing offense is multiple pass interference calls, there is a problem.

The defense struggled late, allowing 141 yards on 26 carries to Wildcat RB Drake Anderson, and 165 passing yards on 12-of-25 attempt by quarterback Hunter Johnson. The defense allowed 441 total yards while the Rebels were hit with five first half penalties for 65 yards, a few of which extended multiple Northwestern scoring drives.

To add insult to injury, after breaking former UNLV QB Jason Thomas’s all-time rushing record (1,528), Rogers finished with 57 rushing yards against Northwestern but, thanks to two late sacks, he once again dropped eight yards back of Thomas’s career record again before the game ended.

Of course Thomas also threw for 4,997 career yards to go along with his rushing totals. Rogers has 2,378 in two-plus seasons as the Rebels’ quarterback.

Fans began clamoring for backup quarterback Kenyon Oblad to get his shot, especially after last week’s 3-for-3 for 70 yards and a TD performance in mop-up duty. The redshirt freshman from local Liberty High School is the all-time leading passer in Nevada state history and has shown some upside, especially in stretching the field with his arm.

While Oblad might not be the solution, UNLV has to make some sort of adjustment. The freshman has more TD passes in the last two games than Rogers does. Perhaps the duo can form a QB-by-Committee based on situations. It wouldn’t be the first time a college team used a quarterback tandem to win ballgames.

Whatever the solution is, the clock is ticking faster on Sanchez’s tenure at UNLV. In a game that could’ve bought him more time had his team walked away with a win, he and his staff failed to make in-game adjustments and, to many fans, should wear a brunt of the blame (as opposed to pointing fingers at the kids). It was as if they were coaching to not lose instead of coaching to win.

With a bye week next week, there will be plenty of time for Sanchez to get his house in order but, while the time for extra work is nice, two weeks also means 14 days for fans to break down another failed chance.

UNLV returns to action Sept. 28 at Wyoming (3-0) then at home vs. No. 22 Boise State, at Vanderbilt (0-2), at Fresno State (0-2), vs San Diego State (which should improve to 3-0 after a win over New Mexico State later today), and so on. It’s not a fargone conclusion the Rebels finish with one win — opening day against Southern Utah.