Las Vegas Sun

September 23, 2017

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Third time charm for UNR

A couple of myths -- and a handful of records -- were shattered during Nevada-Reno's 18-15 victory over Ball State in Las Vegas Bowl V.

For starters, the two teams quashed the belief that pairing the champions from the Big West and Mid-American conferences automatically leads to a wide-open, high-scoring contest. Thursday night's contest was the lowest-scoring of the five Las Vegas Bowls.

Secondly, Reno dispelled the notion that it is a one-dimensional team as its defense stepped up and held the Cardinals to 218 yards and 15 points before a crowd of 10,118 at Sam Boyd Stadium.

And that's just fine with Wolf Pack head coach Jeff Tisdel.

"People talk about our offense -- and our offense was outstanding this year -- but I've been trying to sell our community and our football program on what we've done defensively this year and I think we proved it tonight," Tisdel said after the Wolf Pack scored its first Las Vegas Bowl victory in three attempts.

"It was a great defensive game for both football teams but over the years, Nevada has been known for offense ... but to see our defense get some notoriety is really great. I think our defense made a statement to the future of Wolf Pack football, a precedence has been set this year and tonight it was exemplified on the field."

Reno's defense never came up bigger than it did in the final 2 1/2 minutes of the game, after Ball State scored a touchdown and converted the two-point attempt to close to within a field goal with 2:26 remaining, then recovered the ensuing onside kick at its own 46.

After tossing two incomplete passes, Ball State quarterback Brent Baldwin was picked off by Reno linebacker Mike Crawford at midfield and the Wolf Pack ran out the clock to preserve the victory.

"I was just in the right place at the right time," Crawford said of his game-saving interception. "We had the right coverage called, I was freed up and I just watched (Baldwin's) eyes and I jumped up and looked in my hands afterward and had the ball.

"I've only got two interceptions in my whole career and they both happened to come in the two biggest games of my life -- Utah State (in which the Wolf Pack clinched the conference title) and this game."

To illustrate how much this Las Vegas Bowl deviated from its predecessors, for the first time in the five-year history of the game a defensive player -- Crawford -- received one of the two Most Valuable Player awards. Even more bizarre was the fact that Ball State's all-everything punter, Brad Maynard, was given the other -- unanimously.

The game started out as if it was going to be anything but a defensive battle. UNR took the opening kickoff and drove 75 yards in eight plays to its first touchdown, a 16-yard scoring pass from John Dutton to Damond Wilkins. Damon Shea's point-after kick was blocked and Reno held a 6-0 edge.

After Reno's defense held the Cardinals on their first possession, Reno got the ball back and drove 75 yards in 15 plays to a 22-yard field goal by Shea and a 9-0 lead.

Ball State closed to 9-7 two minutes into the second quarter on a 62-yard scoring run by LeAndre Moore.

Reno, which held Ball State to 26 yards on offense in the first quarter and 90 in the first half, went ahead 12-7 with a 33-yard field goal by Shea with 44 seconds remaining in the half.

Despite completing 17 of 28 passes for 216 yards in the first half, UNR's Dutton was intercepted on each of the Wolf Pack's first two offensive series of the third quarter and, after managing only one yard on the third series, was benched in favor of Eric Bennett.

Bennett, a junior who battled Dutton for the starting job in the preseason, led the Wolf Pack on a seven-play, 71-yard scoring drive the second series after he entered the game to put Reno ahead 18-7.

Tisdel said it was an easy decision to replace Dutton, the Big West Conference Offensive Player of the Year who threw for 2,750 yards and 22 touchdowns this season.

"I thought they both did some good things tonight, we just had about four drives in a row where we didn't get a first down ... and we felt we needed a new injection of fuel at that particular point in the game," Tisdel said. "Eric came in and gave us a spark and it was outstanding.

"Steve Mooshagian, our quarterbacks coach, called down and (said he) thought it would be a good change at that point in the game and it proved to be a very good move."

Bennett, who completed 8 of 15 passes for 152 yards, said he had no warning that he was going to replace Dutton.

"I had about 30 seconds (warning), so there was no time to get nervous," Bennett said. "I was just glad the coaches gave me the opportunity to go in the game and I was hoping I could get something started.

"I think them putting me in at the end of the second quarter of a lot of games really kept my confidence up throughout the year and it sure helped me in this game."

As far as Ball State head coach Bill Lynch was concerned, Reno's change in quarterbacks was the least of his team's problems.

"They're a good football team," Lynch said. "So much is made about their offense, and rightly so because they're awful good but their defense is real good; they're a complete football team.

"I feel bad for our defense because they played so well and they controlled field position there in the second and third quarters, but we didn't do enough with it offensively to take advantage of it. When you have your chances, you've got to take advantage of them against a good team and we didn't take advantage of them."

* BOWL NOTES: Nevada-Reno linebacker DeShone Myles, the Cheyenne High School product, learned after halftime that his fianc'ee had given birth to the couple's first child, a son. Myles, who had seven tackles and one sack in the Wolf Pack's win, said they have yet to name the boy. ... Among the individual records set in Las Vegas Bowl V: The longest run from scrimmage (the 62-yard scoring run by Ball State's LeAndre Moore); most punts (10 by BSU's Brad Maynard); longest punt (59 yards, by Maynard); and most sacks (three, by Mike Crawford). ... Not only was Thursday's game the lowest-scoring in Las Vegas Bowl history, it also was the least-attended of the five games. ... Nevada-Reno officials are serious about their school being called "Nevada" as opposed to "Nevada-Reno" or "UNR." First, they made the scoreboard operator change "UNR" on the Sam Boyd Stadium scoreboard to read "Nevada," then one of them tore the "R" off a sign on the school's VIP box that read "UNR."

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