Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013 | 6:47 p.m.
The game-changing play was a bounce of the ball. Instead of falling into the defender’s hands, it could have just as easily fallen to the ground or been hauled in for a catch. A fortuitous bounce wouldn’t have guaranteed UNLV a victory yet that’s how close this game was down the stretch.
A 21-point halftime deficit looked like it might disappear completely until UNLV quarterback Caleb Herring’s pass bounced off receiver Marcus Sullivan’s hands and into those of San Jose State defender Forrest Hightower early in the fourth quarter. Plays before and after swung momentum both ways but that bounce is the one that will haunt the Rebels after a 34-24 loss to San Jose State today at Sam Boyd Stadium.
“That did kill a lot of momentum,” running back Tim Cornett said.
The senior offered that up only after first pointing the finger at himself for a season-low 24 yards on 12 carries. The problem wasn’t his knee, Cornett said. At first the holes weren’t there, and by the time they were, he was trying to do too much and missed his opportunities.
UNLV coach Bobby Hauck preferred a simpler explanation.
“We didn’t deserve to win,” Hauck said. “That’s on me.”
The Rebels (5-4, 3-2) will try to bounce back and gain bowl eligibility next week at home against Utah State.
San Jose State quarterback David Fales was off his game. Whether blame goes to the flu-like symptoms that kept him out of practice earlier this week or credit to UNLV’s defense, Fales finished 15-of-30 for a career-low 150 yards and a couple of interceptions to go with one touchdown.
Those are numbers you’d expect to find after a UNLV victory, but while the Rebels’ rushing game never got going (86 yards), the Spartans’ never slowed down.
San Jose State (5-3, 4-1) piled up 312 yards and two touchdowns on 45 carries. With the running game averaging nearly seven yards per carry, San Jose State could survive Fales’ performance.
“I was surprised that they were so successful in the running game,” UNLV senior safety Frank Crawford said.
Said Hauck, “They ran the ball down our throat.”
Strange as it sounds, that’s how the Rebels preferred to lose. Fales came in averaging nearly 400 yards passing per game over the past five contests.
“We went into the game thinking we wanted them to lean on the run,” Hauck said. “Even at halftime, we discussed changing up some of the things we were doing defensively to be a little saltier against the run, and we really didn’t want the quarterback to beat us. They beat us the old-fashioned way.”
UNLV won the third quarter 14-0 to pull the game closer and it was driving when Herring’s pass was intercepted off Sullivan’s hands. The Spartans took over at their own 44 and faced third-and-7 from UNLV’s 37 just a few plays later. Here was a chance to erase the mistake. Instead, the Spartans’ Thomas Tucker laid down the hammer with a draw right up the middle and into the end zone for a 31-17 lead.
“They ran a play that should not be good into what we ran and they executed it for a touchdown,” Hauck said. “That epitomizes the day.”
With help from a 15-yard penalty, the Rebels did cut the deficit back to seven but the damage was done. San Jose State responded with a 44-yard field goal for the final 34-24 margin with 2:56 remaining. Despite not facing a third down until the end of the drive, the Spartans took more than five minutes off the clock before making it a two-score game.
Had UNLV executed the entire game the way it did the second half, the Rebels likely would have been the ones protecting a lead. They’ve been very good at bouncing back in second halves this season — they trailed or were tied at halftime in four of the five victories — but there’s a limit to how far they can come back against a decent team.
“We dug ourselves a hole and we only have ourselves to blame for that,” Herring said.
The emotional letdown after a week enjoying the Fremont Cannon victory likely played a factor, though the Rebels refused to use that as an excuse. They had their chances and didn’t execute, Herring said. Simple as that.
One bounce the Rebels’ way and maybe they’re celebrating their first bowl eligibility since 2000. Of course, they still would have had to finish that drive, plus the rest of the game.
The lesson to take away is that with three more chances to reach six victories, the Rebels can’t afford to rely on the ball bouncing their way. Comebacks don’t work every week and these second-half performances would look good in a first half, too.