UNLV football:

These top upsets in UNLV football history prove anything possible in opener at Arizona


Ross D. Franklin / AP

UNLV receiver Phillip Payne, top, celebrates with teammate Rodelin Anthony (84) after Payne beat Arizona State defensive back Omar Bolden (3) for a touchdown in the second quarter of the Rebels’ 23-20 victory in 2008.

The Rebel Room

Under the Tucson Sun

With UNLV football entering game week for the 2014 season opener at Arizona, Las Vegas Sun reporters Taylor Bern and Case Keefer dust off the Rebel Room to break down UNLV's first game and the season outlook.

The Rebels have an uphill climb in Friday’s season opener at Arizona. Although coach Bobby Hauck isn’t conceding defeat, he’s made it clear the Rebels know they’re the underdog.

“That’s a difficult task for us,” Hauck said Monday.

UNLV is a 24-point underdog at most sports books in town. It’s a big number, one that would make an outright victory a legitimate shock to most outsiders. But it’s not like the Rebels haven’t done that before.

Thanks to their long-term struggles, the Rebels have played a lot of games as big underdogs. A few times, they’ve pulled off the shocker. As the Rebels prepare to open the season in that familiar position, here’s a look at a few times throughout the years they’ve turned that underdog status into a big performance:

At No. 15 Arizona State, 23-20

Plus-25 • Sept. 13, 2008

The 15th-ranked Sun Devils had a showdown the following week with No. 2 Georgia, featuring future first-round draft picks Matt Stafford, A.J. Green and Knowshon Moreno. The only thing standing in their way was a Rebels squad tired of getting overlooked.

Arizona State’s postmortem would certainly be that the Sun Devils were looking past their opponent, and that could be partially true. ASU seemed to be sleepwalking through the game, just waiting for UNLV to go away. Only the Rebels never did.

Quarterback Omar Clayton threw two touchdowns to receiver Phillip Payne, and Kyle Watson’s overtime field goal was enough for the upset when defensive tackle Malo Taumua blocked the Sun Devils’ tying field goal attempt.

Running back Frank Summers finished with 103 yards on 22 carries and the line of the night: “They said we wouldn’t be a problem if they looked forward to Georgia. They can play Georgia now, and best of luck to them.”

For what it’s worth, Georgia won 27-10.

At No. 14 Wisconsin, 23-5

Plus-20 • Sept. 13, 2003

Flip this line, making UNLV a 20-point favorite instead of a 20-point underdog, and the Rebels still nearly cover the spread. That’s how dominant they were.

Speaking of dominance, this was how safety Jamaal Brimmer’s day went: fumble returned for a touchdown, two interceptions that both led to touchdowns and two sacks among a game-high 11 tackles. It’s on the short list for best individual performance in UNLV history.

Wisconsin running back Anthony Davis, who was the nation’s leading rusher the previous season, went out with an ankle injury in the first quarter. Quarterback Jim Sorgi couldn’t pick up the pieces, tossing those two interceptions and getting sacked eight times. The Rebels forced five turnovers.

At No. 16 Colorado State, 36-33

Plus-17 • Nov. 30, 2002

Last game of the season. Starting quarterback Jason Thomas out with an injury. This didn’t appear to be a game the Rebels would get up for, especially considering they missed out on bowl eligibility with a two-game losing streak heading into the game.

Of course, that’s often what makes an upset. The underdog has everything against it and comes out on top anyway. It helps, too, when running back Larry Croom goes off for 222 yards as he did against the Rams.

Croom scored one touchdown and set up a couple of the Rebels’ other scores with long runs. Backup quarterback Kurt Nantkes threw three touchdowns.

Arkansas, 31-14

Dec. 21, 2000 • Las Vegas Bowl

Two things make it difficult to find UNLV’s biggest upsets in school history. The first is a lack of overall victories. The second is the longstanding local ban against betting on in-state teams, which makes it harder to find old spreads.

The Rebels probably weren’t huge underdogs during their bowl matchup against Arkansas, but the lone victory against a team from the Southeastern Conference is still worth noting. Quarterback Jason Thomas finished 12-of-17 with 217 yards and three touchdowns.

Not surprisingly, this is the only game at Sam Boyd Stadium on the list. The odds get longer away from home, and it’s in those us-against-the-world road environments that upsets are made.

At No. 8 BYU, 45-41

Oct. 10, 1981

You didn’t need a point spread to understand how monumental this upset was for UNLV. Sure, BYU starting quarterback Jim McMahon wasn’t able to play, but history would prove that backup Steve Young was pretty good too.

The Rebels intercepted Young four times, which helped offset UNLV quarterback Sam King’s four interceptions. It was a back-and-forth game that required a big fourth-quarter comeback.

The Rebels trailed 41-24 in the third quarter, but Mel Carver and Ray Crouse both finished drives with short touchdown runs. The final score came with 19 seconds left when King silenced the crowd with a 20-yard touchdown pass to Jim Sandusky, who finished with eight catches for 161 yards.

That was UNLV’s first trip to Provo, Utah, where they return this season on Nov. 15, and it’s still the highest-ranked opponent the Rebels have ever defeated.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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