AIR FORCE ACADEMY — Facing a daunting comeback, Air Force quarterback Arion Worthman focused on the clock, not the scoreboard.
Worthman ran for four of his five touchdowns in the second half, including a 1-yard plunge with 2:14 remaining and Air Force rallied from a 27-point deficit to beat UNLV 34-30 on Saturday.
“There was never a moment in the game where I thought we were going to lose,” Worthman said. “Even down 27-0, I knew we were going to find a way to win the game. We’ve done it before in the past. As long as it shows time on that clock, I always think we’re going to win, we’re going to make plays, and that’s what we did today.”
The go-ahead 80-yard drive was preceded by a wild sequence in which UNLV quarterback Armani Rogers fumbled at the end of a run and the ball squirted forward some 20 yards with at least two Rebels players missing a chance to grab it before Falcons linebacker Shaquille Vereen fell on it in the end zone for a touchback.
“I saw someone coming at me and I tried to make a move, and got hit from behind,” said Rogers, whose fumble was forced by linebacker Grant Ross. “I didn’t see him and it forced the fumble — a killer play.”
It was the second largest comeback by Air Force (2-4, 1-2 Mountain West Conference), which overcame a 28-point deficit in a 44-38 overtime victory over Fresno State in 1996.
Worthman finished with 166 yards rushing with TD runs of 14, 1, 5 and 6 before diving in for the game-winner.
“We’ve had a couple of pretty close games here and everybody was definitely excited to pull one out,” said Air Force linebacker Jack Flor, whose Falcons were beaten by Navy 48-45 on a touchdown by the Midshipmen with 15 seconds left last week.
“We could have played a ton better, but UNLV played a great game,” Flor added. “I think everybody is just excited to see what we’ve been working towards come to fruition. That comes with a grain of salt, because we’re 2-4 right now. We’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Rogers was 12-of-27 passing for 145 yards and ran 16 times for 148 yards and a touchdown. Lexington Thomas rushed 17 times for 91 yards, including a 55-yard score to finish off the Rebels’ opening possession.
Evan Pantels added field goals of 40, 27, and 34 yards for UNLV (2-4, 1-2).
Air Force trailed 27-0 before getting on the board near the end of the first half with a 14-yard touchdown run by Worthman on a quarterback keep play.
The Falcons outscored the Rebels 27-3 in the second half to complete the comeback.
“The fumble (into the end zone) was huge,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said. “If we don’t fumble that ball, we are in field goal range after a momentum play — after an (Air Force) turnover.”
The Rebels forced four Falcons turnovers but were undone by their own costly miscue in the waning minutes. And after an explosive start, their offense bogged down badly and was unable to answer the relentless late challenge from the Falcons. The Rebels were limited to one first down in the third quarter.
The Falcons won despite making a slew of mistakes that included five fumbles (four lost), a missed field goal and an aborted field goal in which the snap sailed over the holder’s head. But a late scoring drive in the second quarter allowed them to go into halftime with a touchdown on the board and they took advantage of their opportunities in the second half where the Rebels did not.
Nothing fueled Air Force’s comeback more than a blocked punt late in the third quarter, leading to the third of Worthman’s five touchdown runs and pulling the Falcons to within 30-20 heading into the final quarter. Falcons linebacker Kyle Johnson shot the gap between the center and guard on a middle rush, breaking through to block punter Riley Erickson’s kick and give the Falcons offense a short field. “I just stuck my arm out,” said Johnson, a sophomore. “It’s everyone’s job to make plays. It’s everyone’s job to execute their position. I just thought I did my job. I was excited to make a play, though.”
UNLV will return home to host Utah State next Saturday.
Air Force will face a quick turnaround on the road, playing at Friday night at Nevada.