Rebels’ improvements not enough to beat No. 19 San Diego State

Photo courtesy of UNLV Athletics

It’s clear that the UNLV football program has made significant progress throughout the season. But, against nationally-ranked San Diego State, the Rebels could not overcome a few crucial mistakes and injuries against the Aztecs, falling 28-20.  

“We’re not where we want to be, we expect to win those games, especially against good opponents, because at the end of the day we’ve got to find a way,” head coach Marcus Arroyo said after the loss. “These guys have fought, they are tough, they’ve been growing, they are resilient, they’ve got a bunch of pride in the locker room and you can see that they are playing for each other.”

UNLV struck first on the opening drive. QB Cameron Friel completed three passes of 10+ yards to get the Rebels deep into San Diego State territory. The Aztecs stopped the Rebels in the red zone and UNLV settled for a 21-yard field goal from Daniel Gutierrez. 

The Aztecs got their first score on a fluky play, as Friel’s pass was deflected and picked off by Andrew Aleki for a 17-yard touchdown, giving San Diego State a 7-3 lead. 

In the second quarter, the Rebels’ starting quarterback, Friel, and top receiver, Kyle Williams, were both carted off the field with injuries and did not return to the game. UNLV brought in QB Justin Rogers off the bench, who helped provide a much-needed spark to the UNLV offense. 

On Rogers’ first drive, he completed three big passes, including back-to-back passes to RB Charles Williams for 36 yards and to WR Steve Jenkins for 43 yards and a touchdown. Rogers has not played since the UTSA game and helped carry the Rebels Friday when they needed him to. 

“It was great, phenomenal for him to step like that,” Jenkins said of Rogers’ performance. “Our motto is ‘next man up,’ so all week, all year, he’s been practicing hard. And practice came out and showed out in the game and he showed up.” 

San Diego State responded on the ensuing drive when QB Lucas Johnson found TE Jesse Matthews in the end zone, taking a 14-10 lead. 

UNLV made a questionable decision on the next drive. With less than a minute remaining, the Rebels decided to go for it on fourth down near midfield. The Aztecs stopped the Rebels and San Diego State took possession back. 

With 49 seconds left, the Aztecs drove down the field, with Johnson and Matthews connecting again, on a 25-yard touchdown to go into halftime with a 21-10 lead. 

“We’re right there and we’ll stay aggressive in that instance right there against that team,” Arroyo said. “We had timeouts. We felt third and one, and fourth and one we’re gonna go for it right there. We feel good about Charles (Williams) and our line, it didn’t come out the way we wanted to.”

In the third quarter, UNLV stuck on a big play with Rogers finding Jenkins for an 80-yard completion to set up a first and goal. Rogers found TE Gio Fauolo on an eight-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 21-17.

Later in the quarter, UNLV settled for a field goal after San Diego State stopped them at the four-yard line. 

San Diego State put the nail in the coffin late in the fourth quarter with a five minute drive, as Johnson and Matthews connected on their third touchdown of the game, putting the game at 28-20. The Rebels would fall short on their last drive when Rogers was intercepted on fourth down near midfield. 

The Rebels outgained the Aztecs in total yards (349-290) and UNLV’s defense was dominant on third down, limiting the Aztecs to only three conversions on 12 attempts. Where the Aztecs held a significant advantage was when Aztecs punter Matt Arazia pinned the Rebels back, on average, at its own 18-yard line, dominating the field position game. 

Rogers completed 15 of 21 passes and had two touchdowns. Jenkins led the Rebels with 176 receiving yards on five catches. 

UNLV closes out the season on Nov. 26 when they travel to Air Force to take on the Falcons at 12:30 p.m.

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