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The 2003 UNLV football team refused to back down against Wisconsin

Rebels didn’t play like 20-point underdog in 2003 upset, forcing five turnovers in historic win


Associated Press

UNLV’s Earvin Johnson (4) catches a touchdown pass over Wisconsin’s Levonne Rowan (21) in the first half Saturday, Sept. 13, 2003, in Madison, Wis.

UNLV football

Running back Dominique Dorsey rushed for 100 yards on 26 carries to help the UNLV football team upset Wisconsin 23-5 on Sept. 13, 2003. UNLV opens this season Thursday at Wisconsin. Launch slideshow »
The Rebel Room

Football heads to Wisconsin; Rice adds another 2012 commit

Ryan Greene and Ray Brewer take a look at UNLV football's Thursday night opener at No. 11 Wisconsin, where the Rebels will head to as a five-touchdown underdog. While Bobby Hauck's program tries to continue its upward trend, Dave Rice and the men's basketball staff kept theirs going on the recruiting trail. The guys discuss the Monday night commitment from Bishop Gorman power forward Demetris Morant and much more.

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Gathered in the visitor’s locker room at Camp Randall Stadium, members of the UNLV football team listened to coach John Robinson’s pregame speech and came to a unanimous decision: the Rebels were going to shock the college football world this Saturday afternoon.

They were 20-point underdogs against host Wisconsin on Sept. 13, 2003, and weren’t expected to put up much of a fight. You see, the Badgers had better players, were a nationally recognized program from the elite Big Ten Conference and virtually unbeatable at Camp Randall — a sanctuary for the program’s loyal supporters, where the 80,000-seat capacity is always sold out with raucous fans.

The Rebel players, however, weren’t fazed. To a man, they believed what Robinson was telling them. Yes, the best team that afternoon was wearing red — UNLV red, not Wisconsin.

“I think we all knew we were going to win beforehand,” said Zach Bell, a defensive lineman and one of UNLV’s key players. “There was a sense in the locker room we were going to win. I know a lot of teams say that before a game, then go out and play well but don’t win. It wasn’t that way with us. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind what was going to happen. A lot of people didn’t believe in UNLV, but man, we believed in each other to get a win.”

UNLV went on to do just that, taking advantage of five Wisconsin turnovers and limiting its potent rushing attack to 58 yards in one of the program’s all-time greatest wins, a 23-5 victory that will surely give inspiration to this year’s UNLV team. The Rebels will be back at Camp Randall on Thursday for their season opener, facing similar odds — No. 11 Wisconsin is favored by 36 points and the Badgers have national title hopes after highly touted quarterback Russell Wilson transferred in from North Carolina State. Like the 2003 game, this year’s contest will be televised by ESPN, giving the up-and-coming UNLV program a perfect platform to make a national splash.

“The whole world was shocked with what we came in and did,” said running back Dominique Dorsey, who rushed 26 times for 100 yards in relief of injured Larry Croom, who eventually played in the NFL. “We weren’t expected to do much and we didn’t go in with high expectations. But, with the talent we had, there was no denying we could play with any team in the country.”

UNLV had given up 47 points in losing by 22 to Kansas the previous week and Wisconsin running back Anthony Davis (who led the nation in rushing the previous year) had rushed for 414 yards in the Badgers’ initial two games. But the Heisman hopeful Davis left with an ankle injury in the first half after only rushing twice for 11 yards, and the Rebel defense limited Wisconsin star receiver Lee Evans to two catches for 58 yards.

It was No. 14 Wisconsin’s first loss at home since 1959 when being ranked in the top 15.

“We, of course, were big underdogs and they were expected to be very good,” Robinson said. “But they didn’t play like that. They kept fumbling and we played a very aggressive game.”

In addition to forcing five turnovers, the UNLV defensive line was unstoppable all afternoon in recording eight sacks. Safety Jamaal Brimmer had one of the best single games in program history, returning a fumble 55 yards for a touchdown, grabbing two interceptions and breaking into the backfield for two sacks.

Wisconsin only trailed 16-5 at halftime, but Brimmer intercepted a Jim Sorgi pass early in the third quarter and returned it to the Wisconsin 24-yard line. UNLV scored a few plays later for an 18-point advantage.

As the day grew longer and Wisconsin mistakes continued to mount, the mood at Camp Randall went from traditionally festive to somber. It was Wisconsin’s first loss of the season, meaning the dream of a national championship was over. And ended by UNLV, of all teams.

“Coach Robinson told us that once it starts getting crazy and loud to just pretend they were cheering for us because we had the same colors,” Bell said.

Midway through the fourth quarter, and with the outcome virtually certain, Wisconsin fans started exiting the stadium.

“It’s a real sick feeling seeing your fans walk out with eight, nine minutes left,” Wisconsin safety Jim Leonhard said at the time. “But I probably would have, too.”

In the first quarter, Wisconsin fumbled on the UNLV 6-yard line when it was driving to score. The rest of the day didn’t go much better for the Badgers as they were limited to 187 total yards and failed to score a touchdown at home for the first time since 1995. It was perfect storm of sorts to give UNLV the unthinkable win.

The current UNLV team will need a similar fate to duplicate the upset. Wisconsin, widely considered the Big Ten’s best team, views UNLV as a warm-up of sorts for what could be a memorable season.

Just don’t ask Bell, whose younger brother, B.J. Bell, is a senior defensive lineman on this year’s Rebel team, to buy into the hype. He’s telling his brother to believe that anything is possible — just like in 2003. UNLV’s victory was the last time Wisconsin has dropped a nonleague game at Camp Randall, a streak of 28 straight wins.

Oh, the possibilities.

“We took over the stadium that day,” Zach Bell said. “If we would have played that game 100 times, we would have won every one of them.”

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  1. nostalgia doesnt win football games.

  2. Neither does hype and a preseason ranking

  3. I'm realistic...but it sure is fun to hope. Go Rebs!

  4. I remember exactly where i was for that game. Great memory. Good Luck Rebels!

  5. Work hard, play hard, and at the end of the day whatever outcome there is you will know you tried your best. Give them a run for their money fellas, and catch them sleeping on the first game of the season.

  6. Finally agree with dipstick for once. But I failed to see anywhere in the story where that premise was put forward. But, it wouldn't be a Dipstick comment without negativity. That was a great game good memories for Rebel fans when there aren't many concerning the football program.

  7. I'll admit, I'm excited to see what the Rebels have - let's play them tough, not get blown out and have a few flashes.
    Go Rebs!