Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013 | 11:50 p.m.
The Rebels don’t do easy. Their style doesn’t let you exhale until things really are over, not when it feels they really ought to be. So why should the victory securing bowl eligibility for the first time in 13 years be any different?
A 27-0 lead felt like more than enough against a two-win Air Force squad, but it’s not a UNLV game without a little drama. Through mistakes of their own and the Falcons’ refusal to quit that lead shrunk to 12. In the end all that did was add some excitement to a 41-21 UNLV victory that set off the biggest celebration this side of the Fremont Cannon.
“Once I get home, I’m not going to be able to sleep,” said senior running back Tim Cornett.
Cornett finished with 220 yards and four rushing touchdowns, both career highs. Over 35 carries he nearly outpaced the entire Air Force team, which came in with the 10th-leading rushing attack in the nation.
He was consistent, too. His first two carries covered 30 yards and ended in the end zone; his last one spanned 46 yards down the same sideline and across the same goal line. In between he kept drives alive with big jukes leaving defenders clutching air and hard runs making the same defenders wish they had missed.
“He had a couple of runs where he bailed us out and made something out of nothing,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said.
The Rebels (6-5, 4-3) are bowl eligible for the first time since a 2000 bid to the Las Vegas Bowl. They’re not guaranteed a game yet but it would have to break exactly wrong for them to get left out. A win next week at home against San Diego State would lock up an appearance.
As to where they’re going, everything except the Las Vegas Bowl, which has the Mountain West’s first selection, is still possible.
Senior quarterback Caleb Herring and his teammates would probably take a trip to the Hawaii Bowl if they got to choose. Really, though, they couldn't care less. That they’re likely going anywhere at all is enough to celebrate.
“We’re on another level of excitement,” Herring said.
Herring completed 15-of-18 passes for 141 yards and also scored twice on the ground. The key to his accurate passing may be that Herring threw with a glove for the first time he could ever remember.
The kickoff temperature was announced at 11 degrees with a wind chill of minus-7. Herring tried a few tosses with the glove in warmups and felt comfortable enough to go with it.
Those two were huge reasons the Rebels won. The factors that nearly led to an historic collapse included an all-time bad special teams performance and a fumble at the 1-yard line.
Once Cornett scored to give UNLV its 27-0 lead, Hauck called for an onside kick that he hoped would put the game completely out of reach. The kick was good but UNLV’s coverage team knocked the ball out of bounds, and Air Force (2-9, 0-7) suddenly had life with great field position and a touchdown three plays later.
Hauck said the Rebels were considering that play all week because of the likely windy conditions. With the American flag whipping 13-18 miles per hour in UNLV’s face, Hauck felt the difference between a botched onside and a full kick was negligible.
“By taking that risk we probably give up 10-15 yards,” Hauck said. “So, good play.”
From that decision until Cornett’s exclamation point score, Air Force went on a 21-6 run. The Rebels’ special teams woes also included two blocked extra points, a missed 30-yard field goal and two penalties on a kick return that backed the offense up to the 4-yard line.
The Rebels actually responded well to that challenge, taking the ball all the way down to Air Force’s 1-yard line. Cornett started the drive in the backfield but Shaquille Murray-Lawrence took over and earned a goal-line carry with a 24-yard scamper that carried the Rebels inside the 5.
Coming into the game, Murray-Lawrence hadn’t carried the ball since he fumbled his first rushing attempt at UNR nearly a month ago. He’s likely heading back to the bench after coughing it up on third down.
“It was his drive,” Hauck said when asked why Murray-Lawrence got the ball instead of Cornett.
Those plays nearly derailed the on-field party that included another Gatorade bath for Hauck, his third this season. He probably could have done without this one and the cold that’s sure to follow.
“Hell may have just frozen over,” Hauck said, “the Rebels are bowl eligible.”
Though he said it was spontaneous, Hauck may have started crafting that line with a four-touchdown lead in the first half. Of course, he’s been through enough of these to know it’s almost never that easy.
That wouldn’t be the Rebels’ way.