2017 UNLV Rebels Football Season Review
It can be hard to tell if the UNLV Rebels football program took a step forward in 2017
The UNLV Rebels were among college football’s more unpredictable teams in 2017
The 2017 college football bowl season started last week. It started without the UNLV Rebels.
That’s certainly a disappointment to many fans of the Scarlet and Gray.
Expectations were high entering this season, the third of the Tony Sanchez era. Bowl eligibility was the talk in the waning days of summer, but that discussion came to a screeching halt after the opening game of UNLV’s season.
Somehow the team clawed its way back into relevance over the course of the next several weeks, before having their bowl hopes dashed in the 2017 regular season finale.
So was this season a success or not? Few FBS teams were as interesting as the Rebels were this year. That’s not always a good thing. Here’s a trio of positives and negatives from the season that was, an assessment of 2017, and a look at the 2018 Rebels football campaign.
I’m starting with the lowlights from 2017. That’s the easier thing to write about and that’s probably not a good thing. I want to get it out of the way and talk about some of the more pleasant things from this season, though. Sorry for making you relive this.
Howard: 43 UNLV: 40
Yikes. UNLV could not have started its season in a worse fashion. In 2016 the Rebels opened with the Jackson State Tigers. Now, while that season did not end to the satisfaction of most UNLV fans, the team did what it was supposed to do against what was perceived as a vastly inferior opponent.
That’s why 45-point spreads exist. That was the margin that UNLV was favored by against Mid-Eastern Atlantic opponent Howard, from the FCS. The Bison were paid $600,000 to tussle with UNLV at Sam Boyd Stadium and they left Las Vegas with more than a fat check.
Howard quarterback Caylin Newton, Cam’s little brother, accounted for 330 yards and three scores as Howard upset the Rebs 43-40. As point spreads go, it was the biggest upset in college football history, besting Stanford’s 24-23 toppling of USC a decade ago. The Trojans were favored by 39. After the loss to the Bison the conversation shifted in Las Vegas from bowl games to whether or not we were watching the worst UNLV team in program history.
Nevada: 23 UNLV: 16
Man, this one hurt. While it was unlikely the Rebels were to be invited to a bowl game (due to a glut of eligible teams) reaching six wins would have marked a significant step forward for the program. And they were so very close.
UNLV had won three of four games entering the 2017 installment of the Battle for the Fremont Cannon, sitting at 5-6 on November 25th. On the other hand Reno had just two wins on the season, knocking off Mountain West bottom feeders San Jose State and Hawaii. People like to say that those things don’t matter in a rivalry game. I think that’s an overused sentiment. This was one of those games though.
The Wolf Pack seized the opportunity to eliminate the possibility that the Rebels would participate in postseason play with a 23-16 win. UNLV was up a touchdown midway through the third quarter and had multiple opportunities to stretch this into a two-score game, only to squander them all. Nevada tied things up with under a minute remaining in the third and took the lead for good on a Kelton Moore touchdown run halfway through the fourth. The loss guaranteed UNLV would be home for bowl season for a fourth consecutive season.
Air Force: 34 UNLV: 30
While the Howard loss was embarrassing and the Nevada defeat was massively disappointing, the game against Air Force may have provided UNLV fans with the most severe stomach punch of the 2017 season.
Through one half the Rebels played arguably their best football of the year. UNLV built a 27-0 lead with just over three minutes remaining in the first half. Everyone got in on the scoring. Lexington Thomas, Xzaviar Campbell, and Armani Rogers all had touchdown runs. For the game, Air Force would fumble the ball away four times and managed just 72 passing yards. That wasn’t enough to keep the Rebels from snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.
The Falcons outscored the Rebels 27-3 in the second half to score a stunning 34-30 victory. Arion Worthman found the end zone five times in the second largest comeback in school history. Air Force didn’t take the lead until there were two minutes remaining in the game. With a minute left UNLV’s final drive fizzled in Falcon territory and Sanchez’s bunch fell to 2-4 overall.
UNLV: 26 Fresno State: 16
It’s coach-speak and a little cheesy but I think UNLV’s win over Fresno State really spoke to the resiliency of this season’s squad.
Granted, it was a shock to many that Fresno State held the record they did entering their October 28th matchup with the Rebels. The Bulldogs sat atop the Mountain West Conference and were riding a four-game winning streak. A week earlier they crushed traditional MWC powerhouse San Diego State 27-3 on the Aztecs’ home field.
The Rebels played turnover-free football and featured a balanced offensive attack in which they controlled the time of possession, holding the ball for ten minutes more than the Bulldogs. Lexington Thomas paced the Rebs with 88 yards on 20 carries as UNLV picked up its biggest win of the season.
UNLV: 38 New Mexico: 35
This one wasn’t so notable for the opponent, New Mexico would finish in the basement of the Mountain Division, as it was for delivering the Armani Rogers moment we had all been waiting on.
Rogers is the biggest reason that expectations were so high entering this season. Sanchez resisted the urge to pull the freshman’s redshirt last season, even after multiple quarterbacks went down with injuries. Leading up to the game with New Mexico, that patience was rewarded, if only in glimpses.
Against the Lobos fans were treated to a good look of what’s to come with Rogers under center. With a loss eliminating the Rebels from bowl contention, UNLV yielded a 41-yard touchdown run to Lamar Jordan with just over a minute remaining, giving New Mexico a 35-30 lead.
Rogers got the ball with 65 seconds to operate. He needed only 40. The freshman engineered a 5-play drive covering 77 yards punctuated by a 14-yard touchdown pass to Kendal Keyes. In the Rebels 38-35 win, Rogers threw for 211 yards and rushed for 193, a school rushing record for a quarterback.
While it did not add up to postseason play, the UNLV roster was littered with spectacular individual performances from 2017. Certainly more so than in years past, and it appears the Rebels are trending in the right direction.
Rogers is the real deal. He was named Freshman of the Year in the Mountain West Conference, and with good reason. He established a new UNLV quarterback record with 780 yards on the season, and he was the only freshman in the country to rack up 700 yards on the ground and average better than 140 yards through the air.
One of the few sure things in a season of ups and downs for the Rebels was the consistent play of running back Lexington Thomas. Thomas was named First Team All-Mountain West after a dazzling performance this season. He ranked 16th nationally with 6.3 yards per carry and his 17 touchdowns this year ranks second in the conference to only Raashad Penny of San Diego State.
Mike Hughes Jr.
Hughes was named Second Team All-Mountain West, capping off a sensational career in a Rebels uniform. The senior lineman started 36 straight games at UNLV and totaled 53 tackles and a team-high seven tackles for a loss this season.
So how did we do? Well, ok I guess. On paper it was a step forward. In Sanchez’s first year in Las Vegas the team won three games. Last year it was four. This year it was five. So we’re moving in the right direction. But after the Nevada loss it’s undeniable that the feeling among Rebels fans was that the season was a disappointment. I can’t argue that.
The argument that I might try to make is a predictable one. That we saw the development of key pieces to UNLV’s football future, and therein lies the success of 2017. It’s hard to say that this year was a success. Let’s just say it wasn’t a failure. And that, in and of itself, is a success. Let’s move on to the future.
I am so ready to drink the UNLV is headed to a bowl game next season Kool-Aid. The Rebels lost some games in 2017 in spectacular fashion. A year later I would hope that a more veteran crew will have learned how to not get tripped up by an FCS school. Or blow a four-touchdown lead at Air Force. Or fumble away bowl chances at Nevada. They don’t have to fix all of those. Just one of those.
A year from now we’ll be having a discussion regarding whether Lexington Thomas is the greatest running back in UNLV history. We’ll be discussing whether Rogers is a top-three MWC quarterback. That conversation could be particularly interesting, with the recent news that former Cal QB Max Gilliam will be transferring from Saddleback College to UNLV.
The future is bright. And it has to be. The Ferttita Football Complex is being built, and the Raiders are coming to town. That means by the time Rogers is a senior he could be taking snaps for UNLV in the newest, glitziest stadium the NFL has to offer. And a 5-7 squad won’t do for a place like that.
September 1st, 2018. UNLV at USC. Rebels and Trojans in the Coliseum. Get it on your calendar.