Updated August 31, 2019 - 10:38 pm
UNLV probably could’ve gotten away without throwing a pass Saturday night.
The Rebels dominated Southern Utah up front, creating holes for Charles Williams and the other backs to rush for 331 yards and a record-tying seven touchdowns.
That added up to an easy night at Sam Boyd Stadium, with the Rebels opening their season with a 56-23 victory before an announced crowd of 17,421.
UNLV led 35-7 by halftime, taking the mystery out with a 28-point second quarter. The Rebels already had rushed for 213 yards and four touchdowns by then. Their seven total rushing TDs tied the record set in 1974 against Prairie View A&M.
“They were running a certain defense where we couldn’t go outside, so we had to attack the middle, and they kept giving it up,” Williams said. “So we kept attacking it until they stopped it.”
The Rebels made it clear this game wouldn’t be a replay of the 2011 visit by Southern Utah in which the Thunderbirds won 41-16. Or the 2017 visit by Howard when the Rebels lost 43-40.
This game, instead, fell more in line with most outcomes under fifth-year UNLV coach Tony Sanchez against Football Championship Subdivision teams. UNLV won by margins of 29, 50 and 72 points in those other games.
Another signature of Sanchez-coached teams is a strong ground game. The Rebels have averaged at least 224.3 yards rushing each of the past three seasons, and even in a switch of offensive coordinators nearly on the eve of training camp wasn’t going to alter that approach. Garin Justice took over for Barney Cotton, who is awaiting a heart transplant.
UNLV rotated backs in and out and, as usual, also relied on quarterback Armani Rogers’ strong running ability.
Williams followed a productive training camp by opening the season with 143 yards and three touchdowns on 15 carries. He averaged 9.5 yards per rush.
Rogers added 114 yards rushing on 11 attempts, a 10.4 average, and he scored two touchdowns. That included a spectacular 64-yard run on the first drive of the second half to extend the Rebels’ lead to 42-7.
UNLV had 45 running plays compared to 28 passes, but the Rebels will have games when they will need Rogers to produce more through the air. Against Southern Utah, he completed 11 of 17 passes for 144 yards and a TD.
“I can’t tell you how many times tonight he got us into the right call,” Sanchez said.
Rogers came out of the game early in the third quarter with what appeared to be a leg cramp. He approached Sanchez on the sideline to apparently try to talk his way back in, but with a comfortable lead, Kenyon Oblad remained in the game at quarterback — and promptly led a touchdown drive.
UNLV was just as dominant defensively, especially against the run, allowing Southern Utah just 46 yards on the ground.
“That was definitely the plan, to set the tone and put our foot on their necks and dominate,” said Rebels safety Evan Austrie, who had nine tackles, including a sack. “We came out strong and came out fast.”
The Rebels’ run defense put pressure on Southern Utah quarterback Chris Helbig to pass, and he completed 14 of 26 passes for 138 yards. Not terrible, but not nearly enough on this night in which the Rebels led by as much as 56-7.
UNLV, which was a 24-point favorite, got the easy victory that was expected, but the schedule becomes considerably more difficult. They welcome Arkansas State to Sam Boyd next Saturday, and that game should be a great indicator of where the Rebels’ season is heading, especially with trips to Northwestern and Wyoming afterward.
“We have to keep moving forward and fix the little details and errors we had in this game and execute on the big-time plays that we have,” Rogers said. “We’re not going to have many chances. When we do, we have to capitalize on them.”
The Rebels, for now, will take this performance. They have a much better feeling than the last time Southern Utah played in Las Vegas.
UNLV’s ground game made sure of that.