Earnie Grafton / Associated Press
Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012 | 10:45 p.m.
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SAN DIEGO — Chugging down the right sideline after breaking through UNLV’s defensive line, Adam Muema had nothing between him and a touchdown except green grass. A score would have extended the Aztecs’ lead to two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, a margin that could have effectively ended the game.
It didn’t happen because sophomore cornerback Kenneth Penny chased him from behind and brought Muema down at the 16-yard line. That should have been a monumental play for UNLV, because the Aztecs eventually settled for a field goal and an 11-point lead with 12:15 to play. The play kept the deficit reasonable. It gave the Rebels hope.
“That’s a heck of a play,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said.
Instead it’s a footnote in a 24-13 loss because of what followed. The specifics are important only for record-keeping. Everyone around the UNLV program already knows about the systemic problems with rudimentary mistakes like ill-timed penalties or missed opportunities. It doesn’t surprise anyone that these same problems led to UNLV’s 20th consecutive loss on the road, its eighth loss of the season and its fifth defeat in a row.
In this case the specifics were an offensive pass interference penalty that was announced in Qualcomm Stadium on Devante Davis, presumably for setting a screen, and the final defensive drive. A game-ending, punch-you-in-the-mouth drive bereft of style yet full of substance.
The penalty wiped out a first down inside the Aztecs’ 20-yard line. This was UNLV’s drive after Penny’s tackle and up to that point it had been going really well. Tim Cornett ran for a first down. Then Nick Sherry threw for another one, and Bradley Randle pushed the Rebels (1-8, 1-3) even farther with a short run for their third first down of the drive.
Building off his 64-yard touchdown run on UNLV’s first drive, Cornett put together a solid outing for his sixth 100-yard game of the season. He finished with that score and 127 yards and Randle was serviceable in relief. Sherry was equally impressive, shaking off a shaky start that included getting crushed by a free blitzer after running back Imari Thompson blew his blocking assignment.
“I was a little scared,” Sherry said. “After taking the big hit I didn’t want to get hit like that again so I was falling off my back foot.”
But he made adjustments, stood tall in the pocket and by the fourth quarter he looked like the Sherry from most of the season. Facing third-and-nine at SDSU’s 30-yard line, he scrambled around and found Anthony Williams for what looked like another first down. Of course, the penalty wiped it away.
“It was a questionable call but the refs made it,” Sherry said. “It’s football and you’ve got to deal with it.”
That’s exactly the point. These types of things happen in every game, but UNLV has rarely been able to overcome them. The penalty knocked the Rebels back to third and 24 at the 45 and a sack then brought out the punt team.
However, the game wasn’t lost yet. UNLV had all three timeouts and SDSU (6-3, 4-1) started its drive with 6:55 on the clock. All the defense needed was one stop to give itself a chance. Just one stop from a defense that caused three turnovers in the first half, tipped three passes on consecutive plays in the second half and played OK when it limited the big gains.
Just one stop to save Penny’s effort tackle from irrelevance.
Well, you could probably guess what happened instead. SDSU never gave up the ball. The Aztecs picked up five first downs, including three third-down conversions, and then ran off to celebrate in a mostly empty stadium.
On that final drive UNLV’s defense shifted its look at the line of scrimmage. It tried different blitz looks and pulled out whatever tricks it had left.
“We threw a bunch of different things at them,” Hauck said.
None of it mattered. The Aztecs picked up the pressure and kept moving the chains. The drive lacked a marquee play. It all just seemed to happen, little by little, until suddenly there was nothing left to do but kneel.
This was the Aztecs’ fourth victory in a row, a streak that places them squarely in the top half of the league with a mathematical chance to win the crown. That likely comes to a halt next week at Boise State, because this is not a transcendent team. The Aztecs are good, and in crucial moments Saturday they were great, but three of those wins were against teams with a combined four wins this season.
Backup quarterback Adam Dingwell completed just half of his 26 pass attempts in his first career start but still managed to get 231 yards because Gavin Escobar, Brice Butler and Colin Lockett all broke open for big plays. Escobar finished with 108 yards and four catches and both he and Lockett hauled in touchdowns. The other came from Walter Kazee, who finished with 105 yards backing up Muema, who had 143 on 21 carries.
If you think this latest loss will add on to a building frustration amongst the Rebels you may be surprised to learn they’re taking it pretty well.
“I can’t look around that locker room and see any disappointment as far as effort,” senior defensive back Kenny Brown said. “We went out there and we fought.”
That may be true, but it hasn’t meant much for winning. Even when the Rebels make a big play they can’t make the routine ones that must follow. And they’re running out of chances to do anything about it.