Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013 | 11:17 p.m.
Nolan Kohorst took off running because that’s what dozens of highlights told him to do. Though UNLV’s senior kicker had never before made a game-winning kick, he instinctively started sprinting toward midfield where he was mobbed by his overjoyed — and relieved — teammates.
It was instinct that sent Kohorst to that celebration, because if he stopped to think about what to do after hitting the 44-yard field goal that gave UNLV a thrilling 39-37 victory against Hawaii tonight at Sam Boyd Stadium, he may have stood there as dumbfounded as the exasperated defenders.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Kohorst said after securing UNLV’s first four-game regular-season winning streak since 1984.
UNLV (4-2, 2-0) often practices the two-minute drill and Kohorst often practices kicking a game winner as the clock expires. They don’t often rehearse what to do after it sails through the uprights. That part is better left for real games, when it ceases to be a part of a practice routine and becomes, according to senior quarterback Caleb Herring, “one of the most exciting things that you’ll ever experience as a college athlete.”
Tonight combined so many elements old and new of Rebels football into one blistering and entertaining marathon of a football game. First the new: the Rebels’ offense continued its amazing stretch with 579 yards on a Mountain West record 114 offensive plays and a school-record 38 first downs. Herring tossed a career-high 385 yards and senior Tim Cornett neared the school rushing record with 162 yards and two scores.
Herring’s eight-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter capped a 23-0 second-half run and gave UNLV a 36-17 lead. Many of the 22,755 fans felt so comfortable with the Rebels’ recent ways — an offensive onslaught and a stout second-half defense — that they ignored years of blown leads and headed for the exits.
They missed one hell of an ending.
“Games are funny that way,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said. “Maybe it didn’t need to be interesting; maybe it did.”
Hawaii (0-6, 0-4) kept hope alive with 8:11 remaining, cutting the deficit to 36-23. Considering the Rainbow Warriors’ recent comeback attempts, it certainly felt more important than most touchdowns late in a blowout and the premonition — or fear for UNLV fans — was realized a couple of minutes later when Hawaii’s Sean Schroeder hit Billy Ray Stutzmann over the top for a 48-yard touchdown pass. It was a one-play drive.
Just before halftime, Schroeder hit Chris Gant for a 28-yard strike that gave Hawaii a 17-13 lead. Giving up scores right before the break was basically a tradition for last year’s team, and so was losing one-possession games.
Though fans on Twitter pegged the comeback on UNLV’s prevent defense, Hauck said the Rebels were running the same packages they had all game. After another UNLV offensive drive went nowhere, the same again wasn’t good enough.
Hauck said that if Schroeder made the same throw he did for the go-ahead score in practice he’d get yelled at. But after Gant grabbed the pass while two UNLV defenders knocked each other out of the play and sailed into the end zone, Schroeder was celebrated.
UNLV got the ball back with 1:39 to play and its most important skill players bruised or bleeding. Herring had to miss a play earlier when his helmet popped off and defenders fell on the left side of his face. Cornett and Devante Davis (eight catches, 141 yards) both stayed down after plays in the second half and Marcus Sullivan (11 catches, 113 yards) was banged up, though not enough to keep him off the field for a critical third down play.
Sullivan caught a short pass near midfield and drew a facemask penalty, one of 10 flags charged to the Rainbow Warriors. Herring, with blood leaking through the bandages on his face, appeared to set up a short game-winning field goal attempt on the next play with a toss to Maika Mataele. It was overturned on review.
This was the moment UNLV had to decide whether it was going to be the Rebels of old or new. With 14 seconds left and the ball at Hawaii’s 37-yard line, last year’s team likely would not have found a way to win.
“These situations, we’ve been in them before and we’ve come out on the other side of it,” Herring said. “Tonight gave us a lot of hope.”
Herring moved the ball 11 yards in two plays on dump-off passes and assumed his position as the holder. Kohorst was already two-for-two but UNLV also had passed on a couple of other kicking opportunities to try, and fail, to convert on fourth down.
“No one likes a coward,” Hauck said of his aggressive calls. “No one likes an idiot, either.”
At the end there was no decision to make. UNLV would win or lose on Jake Phillips’ snap, Herring’s hold and Kohorst’s swinging leg. Hawaii gave the trio an extra minute to prepare with a timeout.
Kohorst said he liked the extra time but didn’t use any of it to actually figure out how far the kick was going to be. He just wanted to get on with it, and when the play finally happened Kohorst didn’t think it was good.
“I thought I pushed it right,” Kohorst said. “I looked again and saw it was right down the middle.”
Before the game, Cornett said, offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach talked to him about the various ways a team can win. UNLV could have kept itself in the blowout column. Instead, “this was one of the ugly games he was talking about.”
Ugly victories are a beautiful thing for a Rebels team heading into the back half of their schedule with a realistic shot at their first bowl game since 2000. To get there UNLV will likely have to win another close game, something the players now know they can do. That confidence feels good, even if they’re the ones who had a 19-point lead.
Freshman running back Keith Whitely was the first player to mob Kohorst at midfield. The holder, Herring, wanted in on the action but had a hard time keeping up with the speedy kicker.
“Next time you celebrate don’t run from me,” Herring joked at the postgame press conference.
It’s not Kohorst’s fault. He didn’t know what to do.