Dixon became the first freshman quarterback in school history to both start and win a season-opener, rushing for 129 yards and one touchdown while passing for another 141 yards as the Rebels rallied from a 10-3 halftime deficit to pull out a 23-16 victory at Romney Stadium on Thursday night.
The win snapped a 15-game road losing streak for the Rebels dating back to an Oct. 8, 2004 win at BYU.
"One of the things we talk to our team and to our offense about is there are highs and lows in a game," Sanford said. "There's bad things that happen and good things that happen and … there's two ways you can go. You can react, which is panic, or you can respond. And what (Dixon) did is he responded, and that's what our team did."
Talk about your peaks and valleys. UNLV's offense didn't even register a first down until the 12:17 mark of the second quarter on a 10-yard run by Dixon. The Rebels managed just 49 yards in total offense and three first downs in the first half and entered the locker room trailing, 10-3, with the only points on a 48-yard field goal by Sergio Aguayo just four plays after Jason Beauchamp recovered a Aaron Lesue fumble at the Aggie 35.
The vultures were circling in the press box at intermission. One scribe was already boldly predicting UNLV would be lucky to match its 2006 win total of two.
But Sanford and his staff made a number of halftime adjustments which included abandoning a power running game and switching to a no-back, five wide receiver attack to spread the field.
"They did some things completely different than what we expected on defense and we had to make adjustments," Sanford said. "We attacked them (in the second half) and found a way to win."
Dixon, who was just 2 of 3 passing for two yards in the first half, had the reigns taken off and responded brilliantly. He finished the night completing 12 of 20 passes for 141 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions.
But it was Dixon's running that turned the game around.
His 45-yard jaunt up the middle of the field on a quarterback draw set up the third of Aguayo's three field goals, a 22-yarder that cut the Aggie lead to 10-9 late in the third quarter. On UNLV ensuing possession, he capped an impressive 80-yard, five-play drive with a 15-yard touchdown run on another draw which gave UNLV a 16-10 lead.
Dixon had one big mistake in the game, an unforced fumble at the Rebel 34 midway through the fourth quarter that set the stage for quarterback Leon Jackson III's game-tying touchdown six plays later on a one-yard run. Chris Ulinski's potential go-ahead PAT was wide to the right and the score remained knotted, 16-16.
UNLV punter Brian Pacheco then pinned Utah State deep in its own territory with a punt that bounced out of bounds at the Aggie two yard line. The Rebel defense then dug in and forced Jackson III to punt from the back of his end zone. Casey Flair returned the punt nine yards to the Utah State 36 with 3:08 remaining in the game.
Dixon connected with Ryan Wolfe on a 6-yard pass on 3rd-and-5 at the 31 to pick up a key first down. On the ensuing play, Dixon scrambled 14 yards to the Aggie 11.
Enter Frank "The Tank" Summers who then powered his way into the end zone from 11-yards out for the game-winning touchdown with 1:02 left.
The Rebels, who finished with 314 yards in total offense and 14 first downs, next host No. 7 Wisconsin on Sept. 8 at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Off and running
Inside the Rebels Top Stories
Shakur Juiston & Amauri Hardy Commit to UNLVRunnin' Rebels Add More Stars
Inside the RebelsWednesday at 3:29 PM
McCoy Says Yes to UNLVMcDonald's All-American McCoy Pledges to Menzies for 2017
Inside the RebelsTuesday at 8:33 PM