AP Photo/Colin E. Braley
Saturday, Sept. 11, 2010 | 8 p.m.
SALT LAKE CITY — For being the first road trip in the new era of UNLV football, the result felt all too familiar.
The Rebels fell to No. 20 Utah and dropped their eighth straight at Rice-Eccles Stadium, where they have never won. It was the 16th straight year UNLV has lost its conference road opener.
Utah 38, UNLV 10.
“Utah is better than us,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said. “We made too many mistakes to come in and win on the road.”
Most of those mistakes were made on special teams. Every time UNLV appeared to grab momentum or a chance to get back in the game, a special teams miscue derailed it.
UNLV fumbled on a punt return deep in its own territory, allowed a 77-yard punt return touchdown, snapped the ball over the punter’s head and committed a holding penalty to wipe out a 90-yard kick return.
“I thought we had plenty of opportunities throughout the game,” junior wide receiver Michael Johnson said. “We just didn’t take advantage of them. We made turnovers and didn’t capitalize on them. They capitalized on our mistakes. That’s how you got the outcome.”
The Rebels looked every bit as good as the Utes in the first half. Senior quarterback Omar Clayton, who earned the start over junior Mike Clausen, directed the offense up and down the field for 150 total yards.
With 40 seconds to go, UNLV had more yards than Utah and trailed only 10-3. That’s when redshirt freshman Sidney Hodge fielded a punt, tried a couple of moves and ended up fumbling at the 20-yard line.
Utah jumped on the loose ball and scored the next play when quarterback Terrance Cain, who finished with 207 yards and two touchdowns, found Jereme Brooks in the end zone to take a 17-3 lead.
“We just had that one little mishap at the end of the half,” Johnson said. “That kind of turned the tide for them.”
Hauck, who was visibly frustrated after the game and kept all his comments short, scoffed at the notion that it was the turning point of the game.
“Seventeen-three is nothing insurmountable,” he said.
But the Utah lead only got larger after halftime, when Cain hit junior receiver Shaky Smithson for a 55-yard touchdown on the third play from scrimmage.
UNLV answered two minutes later when junior Nate Carter blocked a Utah punt that walk-on freshman and Cimarron-Memorial graduate Tim Hasson scooped up for an 18-yard touchdown to make the score 24-10.
It looked like the spark the Rebels needed until Smithson ended those thoughts with a 77-yard punt return touchdown a few minutes later.
“That was the game-changer in this game,” said senior linebacker Starr Fuimaono, a member of the punt unit that gave up the touchdown. “We gave up seven points and it was in a critical time. We thought we were making a comeback and we let a big play like that break out.”
Smithson’s return drew the loudest response of the day from the 45,102 fans at Rice-Eccles. After fielding the kick, Smithson stopped dead in his tracks and confused all five of the Rebels closing in on him.
He was able to juke away from all of them and take it down the sideline with his breeze-inducing speed.
“I think we all just lost where they set up their wall,” Fuimaono said.
Utah’s final touchdown came when Las Vegas native Eddie Wide, who went to Cimarron-Memorial, ran up the middle for 13 yards. UNLV gave Utah the prime field position after long snapper Billy Paddack snapped the ball too high for punter Brendon Lamers to pull down.
“We’ve got to hang on to the ball; we’ve got to tackle; we’ve got to not snap it over the punter’s head,” Hauck said.
“It was bad.”
UNLV’s offense did show signs of improvement. Clayton finished with 217 yards on 18-for-37 passing. Johnson recorded seven receptions for 94 yards.
But the Rebels offense could never find the end zone. The game ended appropriately with a botched fake field goal attempt on the one-yard line by the Rebels.
“That’s the game,” Clayton said. “Special teams gave up some plays and the offense didn’t put the ball in the end zone.”