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Freshman running back ties record as UNLV whips UTEP

Updated September 23, 2023 - 10:36 pm

Not one. Not two. Not three.

True freshman running back Jai’Den Thomas had four touchdowns on the ground Saturday, tying the UNLV program record for most rushing scores in a game in just his fourth collegiate outing.

The Rebels kept rolling, riding Thomas to a 45-28 win against Texas-El Paso at the Sun Bowl in El Paso, Texas. Coach Barry Odom’s team enters Mountain West play needing just three wins to attain bowl eligibility for the first time since 2013.

Thomas, who had 100 yards on 13 carries, led a productive day for the Rebels’ running backs. Fifth-year tailback Vincent Davis added 97 yards on 13 carries. Senior Courtney Reese compiled 58 yards and a touchdown, and fifth-year running back Donavyn Lester had 18 yards and a score.

The Rebels (3-1) rushed for a combined 307 yards against the Miners (1-4). UNLV’s six touchdowns on the ground rank second in program history. The Rebels have had seven rushing touchdowns in a game twice, against Southern Utah in 2019 and Prairie View A&M in 1974.

Thomas is the sixth Rebel to rush for four touchdowns in a game. Quarterback Armani Rogers was the most recent to accomplish the feat, against Prairie View in 2018.

Redshirt freshman quarterback Jayden Maiava went 15-for-27 for 190 yards in place of injured starter Doug Brumfield. He also rushed six times for 28 yards, but threw an interception and no touchdowns.

UNLV’s defense had four sacks, nine tackles for a loss and three interceptions. Junior safety Johnathan Baldwin’s nine tackles led the Rebels.

The Rebels’ special teams set the tone early. UNLV’s defense forced UTEP to punt on the Miners’ first drive, and true freshman safety Cameren Jenkins was able to block punter Joshua Sloan. The Rebels immediately took advantage of the short field, as Thomas scored from 12 yards out on the first play to give UNLV a quick 7-0 lead.

UTEP responded with a 75-yard drive capped by a 1-yard touchdown rush by quarterback Gavin Hardison, but UNLV only needed three plays to reclaim its lead. Davis ripped off a 56-yard rush to start the drive, and Thomas found the end zone again two plays later from 17 yards to put UNLV up 14-7.

The Rebels’ special teams unit made a costly error in the second quarter. A roughing the kicker penalty on senior linebacker Fred Thompkins with UTEP punting on fourth-and-26 kept the Miners’ drive alive, and led to another Hardison 1-yard touchdown rush and a 14-14 tie.

UNLV tacked on two more scores quickly to re-establish its lead. Maiava completed a 56-yard pass to junior Ricky White, with the receiver making a nice cut and racing to the UTEP 1-yard line, to set up a 1-yard touchdown run by Lester. Rebels cornerback Cameron Oliver’s first interception of the season on UTEP’s next drive led to Thomas’ third touchdown of the game and a 28-14 lead for UNLV at halftime.

Hardison marched the Miners 75 yards on their opening drive of the second half, leading to an 11-yard touchdown run by Torrance Burgess Jr to make it 28-21.

The Rebels answered with an 18-play, eight-minute drive, but Maiava threw an interception deep in Miners territory. UNLV’s defense got a quick stop, though, and Thomas broke a 46-yard run to get back into the UTEP red zone. He punched it in from four yards out, his fourth and final touchdown of the game, two plays later.

Hardison hit wide receiver Jeremiah Ballard for a 27-yard touchdown to once again pull within a touchdown, but a methodical, composed UNLV drive powered by the legs of Lester and Thomas was capped off by a 32-yard rush to the end zone by Reese.

UNLV finally sealed the win after fifth-year safety Jaxen Turner intercepted Hardison for the second time, and kicker Jose Pizano tacked on a 30-yard field goal.

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on X.

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