Saturday, Sept. 24, 2011 | 9:36 p.m.
It’s time to write the obituary for the UNLV football team’s season. And it’s still September.
After losing by 25 points Saturday to Football Championship Subdivision Southern Utah, the season is, for all intents and purposes, over.
Sure, UNLV has eight games remaining. But after falling 41-16 at home to a team from the Great West Conference, you can chalk the season up with the ones of years past — a colossal disappointment. A 25-point loss to Southern Utah, really?
Again, the program is taking several steps backward with promises of eventually transforming into a winner. After tonight, even the most optimistic supporter would have a hard time picturing the days of the Rebels playing winning football.
One week after showing signs of life in a 40-20 victory against Hawaii, the Rebels couldn’t get out of their own way — there were five turnovers (three of which were returned for touchdowns), penalties, awful quarterback play, questionable play-calling and a lackadaisical effort. UNLV made Southern Utah look like Southern California during the days of Reggie Bush.
Not only did UNLV lose — they were blown out. Of all the embarrassing defeats the program has endured over the years, this is the worst. And that’s not open for debate.
When most of the fans in the half-full Sam Boyd Stadium started heading for the exits early in the fourth quarter, they weren’t just leaving for tonight. They were leaving for the season: UNLV football circa 2011 — dead after four games.
Here are some more observations from the game.
• This penalty was a killer: UNLV was flagged for eight penalties for 95 yards, including wide receiver Phillip Payne being called for pass interference in the end zone in the first quarter on a first-down play from the 1-yard line to push the Rebels back 15 yards. Two plays later, quarterback Caleb Herring fumbled after being sacked, and UNLV missed a major scoring opportunity. They only scored 10 points the rest of the night, the final seven coming in the game’s last minute. Payne, a senior and the Rebels’ best player, has to be smarter. On the play, he wasn’t even looking for the ball, opting to get into a fight with Southern Utah’s defensive back. The sequence symbolized Payne’s up-and-down career. He is one of the best receivers in school history but hasn’t reached his full potential because of mentally not being ready to play. He had 13 catches for 175 yards and a touchdown — stats that aren’t impressive when you consider his unforgivable mental mistake.Editor's note: Following the game, and after this story was posted, it was learned that Payne didn't realize Herring had switched from a running play to a passing play at the line of scrimmage. Payne was trying to block his defender in the end zone when both players became heated and the penalty was called. It could have easily been called on the defender.
• One trick play too many: I loved the play called in the first quarter when UNLV faked a field goal attempt, and holder Mike Clausen threw a 23-yard touchdown to Austin Harrington. Genius. But faking a punt later in the half was a head-scratcher. Punter Chase Lansford’s pass went incomplete when UNLV needed 18 yards for a first down, giving Southern Utah great field position. UNLV was supposed to be bigger, stronger and faster than Southern Utah. The better team doesn’t need to resort to trick plays. Those are for teams that need to create an edge because their talent level isn’t up to par. Then again, maybe UNLV wasn’t the bigger, stronger and faster team.
• Herring still the QB of the future: Sophomore quarterback Caleb Herring had three interceptions returned for a touchdown and was twice benched for bad play. Simply put, he couldn’t have played any worse. After UNLV tied the game at 10 by halftime, Herring’s first pass of the second half was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Just don’t expect UNLV to give up on him. Despite the bad play, he’s not the biggest problem and is still the best option under center. He has the leadership skills to bounce back and has been more than productive before tonight, completing 60 percent of his passes in the first three games.
• How to forget about this night: For as bad as being dominated at home to a Football Championship Subdivision school is, it could be quickly forgotten if UNLV wins its next contest — in two weeks at UNR in the Fremont Cannon rivalry game. The Rebels have lost six straight games to the Wolf Pack, a record for the series. UNLV needs to prepare for the UNR game as if it was playing in the Super Bowl, because the Fremont Cannon rivalry is literally the only game left on UNLV’s schedule that matters. It’s impossible to fix the Rebels’ many problems in two weeks, but its' the best way to stop the bleeding after tonight’s disaster.