The UNLV football team didn’t have to play a perfect game in order to win at Northwestern on Saturday. The Rebels didn’t even have to play above their heads, to hear coach Tony Sanchez tell it.
All they had to do was play a solid brand of football, free of the kind of self-induced misfires that tend to plague struggling football teams. A clean effort, combined with a big play or two from Armani Rogers, and UNLV would have walked out of Ryan Stadium with an upset victory.
Instead the Rebels fumbled three times — Rogers turned it over twice himself — and injury-battered Northwestern pulled away for a 30-14 win.
“The turnovers just killed us,” Sanchez said. “That was a very winnable football game. We’ve played a bunch of games like this over the years where we had to play a little bit above our heads; today that wasn’t the issue. We did not have to play above our heads. We just had to go out, keep moving the chains, hold onto the football and we had a great chance to win that football game.”
UNLV took a 14-10 lead early in the second quarter when Charles Williams broke free for a 37-yard touchdown run (his second of the game, as he also busted a 65-yarder in the first quarter). Northwestern kicked a pair of field goals to take a 16-14 lead into halftime, but UNLV was well-positioned to pounce after the break.
The Rebels received the second-half kickoff and quickly moved into Northwestern territory. But Rogers dropped back to throw on first down from the Northwestern 35-yard line and his pass went directly into the hands of linebacker Paddy Fisher, who held on for the interception at the 23.
UNLV’s defense held and Rogers got the ball back, moving the offense to midfield before another unforced error derailed the drive. On third-and-short, Rogers and backup running back Darran Williams collaborated on a read option; Rogers wanted to pull the ball out and attack a gap in the defense off-tackle, but Williams wrestled the ball away. With the timing thrown off, Williams ran into a wall at the line of scrimmage and was stopped short.
After the Rebels punted, Northwestern immediately extended its lead to 23-14 on a 50-yard touchdown pass from Hunter Johnson to J.J. Jefferson with six minutes left in the third quarter.
“We weren’t on the same page,” Rogers said. “I tried to pull the ball, he was pulling the ball from me and I didn’t want to force it out and cause a fumble.”
Darran Williams’s presence in the backfield at that point was questionable, as starter Charles Williams appeared to have the hot hand after rushing for 132 yards on 12 carries in the first half. But Charles Williams wasn’t on the field for that critical third-down play, and he only received four carries total in the second half (for 10 yards).
Sanchez said Northwestern began loading up to stop Charles Williams, which forced UNLV to go to its passing attack.
A week after playing one of his worst games, Rogers bounced back somewhat to complete 16-of-26 passes for 120 yards. But he threw an interception, lost a fumble and was sacked five times.
The fumble also came at a crucial point in the game. Two drives after Johnson’s touchdown pass to Jefferson, UNLV forced a punt and started with good field position at its own 37. But on the first play of the drive, Rogers ran a keeper and had the ball knocked loose after a short gain. Northwestern recovered.
“We were marching the ball down the field and we had some unforced turnovers,” Rogers said. “I threw a pick, fumbled a couple of times, unfortunately.”
Despite the constant miscues, UNLV had a chance to reduce the deficit to six points early in the fourth quarter. Aided by two pass-interference penalties, Rogers moved the Rebels down to the Northwestern 20 before the drive stalled. Sanchez sent kicker Daniel Gutierrez in for a 38-yard attempt that would have trimmed the deficit to 23-17 with 10 minutes to play, but the kick missed wide right.
UNLV never got closer than nine, as Northwestern scored a tack-on touchdown with 1:30 remaining to account for the final score.
UNLV will now have two weeks to regroup and get ready for its first conference matchup, as they’ll head to Wyoming to open Mountain West play on Sept. 28.
Rogers still believes the Rebels can play winning football.
“We know we can move the ball,” he said. “We just can’t keep beating ourselves.”