Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014 | 3:10 p.m.
Devante Davis struggled to find the words.
While UNLV coach Bobby Hauck and quarterback Caleb Herring answered questions, Davis sat back in his chair and waited his turn with nothing to do but replay a 36-14 Heart of Dallas Bowl loss to North Texas in his mind.
Make no mistake; today’s game at Cotton Bowl Stadium doesn’t change what the Rebels (7-6) achieved this season. They played better and achieved more than most reasonable people could have expected and the outcome against the Mean Green (9-4) was never going to change that.
But that doesn’t mean the loss doesn’t hurt, which was as clear as the tears trickling down Davis’ cheeks. The 2014 coda to a breakthrough 2013 season probably hurts more than any other loss in the Rebels’ careers because greater emotional highs come with equally great lows. And Davis didn’t want to see Herring or any one of UNLV’s other 19 seniors to go out anywhere but on top.
“We lost this last one and the seniors have got to walk out of here after a game like that,” Davis said before pausing. “But the thing that sticks out the most was the leadership that the seniors put in all season to make sure we could come out and win games this year.”
Davis, Herring and senior running back Tim Cornett were the stars of an offense that started to come together in the third game of the season and often carried the Rebels to victories. It looked like they might do that again against the Mean Green when Herring engineered a nine-play, 95-yard touchdown drive for a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.
Davis had two catches, Cornett ran for 11 yards and Herring connected with receiver Marcus Sullivan for a 13-yard score. It looked like the month off between games had done nothing to cool the Rebels’ attack.
Then everything changed. North Texas tied the game with help from Keith Whitely’s fumble on a UNLV punt return. After completing his first eight passes, Herring started getting pressured and throwing wildly. Running lanes for Cornett disappeared.
The Rebels wouldn’t score again until there was less than five minutes left in the fourth quarter. By then the game was pretty much over.
The final seconds ticked away and ended the program’s perfect bowl record — UNLV is now 3-1 all time. Herring sat dejected on the sidelines until a few teammates helped him to his feet.
Over five years, Herring has needed that help more times than he could probably count. This year he was able to be one of the main guys lifting everyone else. That was made possible, in part, by things like offseason workouts, when coaches aren’t allowed to watch. The players win games in the fall by holding each other accountable through the summer.
“Those are the memories that we made together when nobody was looking,” Herring said.
Despite the final score, UNLV’s defense played well for much of the game. The only first-half points they allowed were set up by that fumble and the deficit was still seven until the wheels came off in the fourth quarter.
North Texas quarterback Derek Thompson won bowl MVP honors with an efficient 21-of-30 passing for two touchdowns and receiver Brelan Chancellor rushed for a couple of scores while catching six passes for 74 yards.
“We didn’t address the tricks and the gimmicks that they gave us and hey, we came out on the bottom I guess,” said senior defensive tackle Tyler Gaston.
Gaston is one of four senior starters the Rebels must replace on defense. There are just two senior offensive starters, although Herring and Cornett will be difficult to replace.
Overall, though, the Rebels will bring a lot of pieces back, including the entire offensive line. The departing players expect the chance to be in the stands next season to watch UNLV finish what this year’s team started.
“It’s the first step to a brighter future,” Gaston said. “There’s so much more ahead of this team that I really can’t fathom right now.”
Davis is one of those players that is expected back to help UNLV. There’s a chance the talented receiver, who set a UNLV bowl record with 10 catches for 96 yards, could declare for the NFL Draft but after the game he didn’t sound like a man ready to leave.
“This game’s going to help; knowing we don’t want to feel like this again,” Davis said. “Going forward we’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
The finale wasn’t what any of the Rebels hoped it would be. That’s fine. Like Davis said, there’s much to learn from the pain of a loss and the fact that UNLV played in a New Year’s Day bowl game doesn’t change just because it lost.
“I’m hoping we focus on what we’ve accomplished,” Hauck said, “and that’s a lot.”