Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012 | midnight
- Caleb Herring’s debut at receiver a bright spot in UNLV’s third straight loss
- UNLV must contain Washington State’s passing attack in chase for first victory
- Washington State’s Mike Leach returns to the national stage against UNLV
- Rebels searching for balance between self-belief and burden of letting others down
- ‘We’re hard to love’: Bobby Hauck and Rebels dealing with reality of starting 0-2
- Offensive line working on keeping its promise to keep Nick Sherry off his back
- UNLV punter Chase Lansford among nation’s leaders after solid debut
- Confident UNLV defense, led by Tim Hasson, making positive strides
- All UNLV Football Coverage
Everyone has seen a movie that starts out with an engaging, exciting plotline and then goes off the rails so badly about midway through that it’s difficult to even stick around for the end. UNLV football fans have seen it three times in the last three weeks.
This one took a little bit longer to get enticing thanks to UNLV’s three penalties on the first three plays from scrimmage and a secondary that was getting beat by sandlot pass plays, but freshman quarterback Nick Sherry started matching the Cougars at the end of the first quarter and the shootout was on. And then, right on cue, the Rebels started flubbing their lines in all the same spots.
Over their last two second halves, UNLV has scored just seven points, and that didn’t come until there were less than two minutes left against Washington State (2-1) on Friday in a 35-27 loss that dropped the Rebels to 0-3.
When the credits rolled, there was the same feeling in the pit of the stomachs of the few home fans who actually stuck around for the end. The missed plays UNLV has left on the field over the last three weeks would be enough to drive any team over the edge.
To this point, though, the Rebels still have their fight. Unfortunately, victories are sold separately.
“I don’t think we’re a good team right now, but I also don’t think we’re a bad team right now,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said. “I think we’re an average football team that’s come up on the short end of the ledger three times by slim, slim margins.”
The combined margin of UNLV’s three losses is 14 points, which means there are countless what-ifs to point at in each game. In this one, much like the NAU loss last week, dropped passes turned up often in that search.
Perhaps the most crucial drop was originally ruled a completion near the red zone. With UNLV trailing 35-20, sophomore receiver Marcus Sullivan appeared to catch a first down pass that would set up the Rebels to cut the deficit to one possession. On further review, though, he didn’t hold on.
That set up fourth and three at the 25-yard line, a play that saw Sherry throw about 20 yards downfield into double coverage to Anthony Williams, who caught the ball but was out of bounds. Hauck said they could have checked that play into a short slant but he didn’t have a problem with trying to make a big play.
“They guessed right and that’s where it needed to go,” Hauck said. “… Down two scores at that point I don’t think it was a bad decision.”
Overall Sherry didn’t make too many bad decisions. He tied a school record with 33 completions on 49 attempts, with many of those incompletions via dropped balls. He tossed three touchdowns — two to Sullivan and one to tight end Jake Phillips — and his 351 yards were the most for a Rebel since 2006.
You could chalk up the yardage to a bad Cougars defense, and that’s definitely a big part of it, but Sherry looked a lot more comfortable in the pocket than he has the last two weeks. He took a lot of hits early, but as the game progressed he started shifting away from charging defenders while keeping his eyes downfield on his targets.
It’s progress, on the micro level at least. Sherry’s only concerned with macro, though.
“Three losses, that’s not really improvement,” Sherry said.
Other missed opportunities included: kicking a field goal from the one-yard line at the end of the first half instead of going for a touchdown and a personal foul on offensive lineman Cameron Jefferson that derailed UNLV’s first drive of the second half.
Hauck said he went for the field goal, which pulled UNLV within 28-20 at the break, partly because he went for it in a similar situation in a 2006 game and got shut down. He also liked the percentage play of getting points right before halftime and starting with the ball in the second half. Trouble is, the Rebels haven’t put together any successful third quarters this year.
Friday’s was better — UNLV actually moved the ball this time — but it still came up short. The Rebels didn’t cross midfield again until they were down by 15 in the fourth quarter.
Sherry found Phillips for a score with 1:44 remaining on a play that probably meant more to bettors, who were chanting for the Cougars to score again to cover the 8.5-point spread, than it did the teams on the field. The game already seemed decided.
However, there was a sliver of hope when Washington State coach Mike Leach called a typically atypical play on the ensuing drive, a run on fourth and four that would have sealed the game and instead gave UNLV the ball back.
All the Rebels mustered, though, was a last-second heave toward backup quarterback turned receiver Caleb Herring that was easily swatted away to end the game. Herring got up and slammed his helmet to the turf, clearly trying to unleash the frustration seeing the same scenes play out in front of him once again.
“You get so close, and being so close so many times,” Herring said before trailing off a bit. “For the past three weeks we’ve been right there.”
This one didn’t end with a last-second field goal, but all of the major plot points were there. And the frustration always feels the same.
Hauck said his team is still confident, which may be true, but the Rebels probably won’t be favored in a game until November and will have to fight even harder than the did Friday just to keep some of them respectable. That’s the road ahead.
Hauck seems to see the light at the end, a happier ending to a script that desperately needs a rewrite. He just hopes he’s around to direct it.
“I think they know they’ve got some potential,” Hauck said. “Most of them we’re going to have for a few more years. As long as everybody stays healthy and stays employed, then we’ve got a chance to have a good football team.”