Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Oct. 13, 2012 | 6 p.m.
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One play does not a collapse make. This came from every angle, UNLV’s wheels falling off not one at a time but simultaneously, leaving the Rebels on the ground and frantically trying to force them back on while the Wolf Pack breezed past with the Fremont Cannon rolling its way back to Reno.
The Rebels debuted special uniforms at Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday. They wore gray jerseys with gray pants and a special decal, the cannon painted red, on the helmet. It seemed prophetic as UNLV raced to a 28-7 lead. This was the one to end the streak, to keep the cannon in Las Vegas for the first time since 2004.
Then the second half came, and everything changed.
“Let me tell you something,” UNR coach Chris Ault said. “That cannon ain’t red. It’s blue and silver.”
After the Wolf Pack’s 42-37 gut-punching victory, no one could argue.
UNLV (1-6, 1-1) built its lead by controlling the ball and cutting up UNR’s defense with Tim Cornett and Bradley Randle on the ground and Nick Sherry through the air. The offense moved up and down the field at will, with Cornett amassing more than 100 yards in the first half and three receivers closing the half with at least three catches.
Everything the Rebels did right in the first half, the Wolf Pack (6-1, 3-0) flipped on them the rest of the way. UNLV led 31-14 at halftime and wouldn’t score again until a mostly meaningless 47-yard Marcus Sullivan touchdown catch with less than one minute remaining.
Consider this: UNLV possessed the ball in the second half for less time (eight minutes, 53 seconds) than it did in the first quarter alone (12:06). Before the Rebels’ final drive, the one that ended with Sullivan’s grab, they had amassed 46 yards the entire half.
“We were playing more to keep the lead than keep going,” said Sherry, who tallied the first rushing score of his career during the first half.
The Rebels must now be the runaway national leader in a stat category no one bothers to tabulate: losses to backup quarterbacks. First Northern Arizona, then Washington State. On Saturday, UNR’s Devin Combs started in place of Cody Fajardo and got better as the game wore on, finishing with 167 passing yards, 111 on the ground and three total touchdowns. Running back Stefphon Jefferson, the nation’s leading rusher, also piled up 185 yards and three touchdowns.
“I feel sick for our kids, specifically our seniors, and our fans, too,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said.
That one play, the one some may say is responsible for this collapse, came at the end of the third quarter.
UNR trailed 31-21 with the ball on UNLV’s 42-yard line. Rebels cornerback Sidney Hodge had man coverage on Aaron Bradley along the left sideline on a deep route. With the ball in the air, heads turned to the one-on-one matchup, where Hodge appeared to have terrific inside position on Bradley, who at one point was out of bounds.
Hodge intercepted the pass. Rebels cheered, and it appeared they would start the fourth quarter with the ball and a two-possession lead on their bitter rival. The flag on the play, too, seemed harmless, as just about everybody was expecting offensive pass interference on Bradley for trying to fight through Hodge to get to the ball.
Of course, you know by now that’s not how things went. The flag was on Hodge. Pass interference; first down Wolf Pack. They would score a few plays later, and an interception on UNLV’s next drive set up UNR’s go-ahead score just more than five minutes of game time after the penalty.
“I thought it was a critical and game-changing call,” Hauck said.
Hodge, a Palo Verde grad, wears UNLV’s Battle Born No. 36 jersey. He looked dazed after the game as he struggled to come to terms with the result.
“One play’s not going to make or break this game,” Hodge said, “… but it would have been great to get that called the way it’s supposed to be.”
The play changed things, no doubt. But can anyone guarantee UNLV would have held on with that interception? That’s a debate fans could have for quite some time while the Rebels sift through the wreckage and attempt to put themselves back together.
There are no bye weeks this year. No chances to catch your breath and collect your thoughts. Effort hasn’t been a real issue this season, but a loss like this takes time to bounce back from. That’s time UNLV doesn’t have with a road trip to Boise State (5-1, 2-0) coming next weekend.
“I’m concerned,” Hauck said. “You saw how we came out of that locker room; we were ready to go. … They put a lot into this week. They were emotionally involved in this game, so yeah I’m worried about the next week getting our guys back up to play. This is hard.”
Added Hodge, “It just weighs on you. It’s a terrible feeling of being so close and getting to that point where we should just put our foot down their throat, and we just couldn’t.”
Hodge seemed to take it as hard as anybody. Maybe it’s because the junior was involved in the one play that arguably turned things against the Rebels for good. Or maybe he’s simply the embodiment of Hauck’s concern about the future and how in the hell this team is supposed to pick up the pieces.