Jeff Mulvihill Jr. / instaimage
Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015 | 10:26 p.m.
When everything was against them, when ‘Here we go again’ could be read on the face of some among the red-clad section at Mackay Stadium, UNLV’s Jeremiah Valoaga stuck up his left hand and stopped UNR’s momentum like a crossing guard halting traffic.
Valoaga, a senior defensive lineman, tipped UNR quarterback Tyler Stewart’s fourth-quarter pass into the waiting arms of Rebels junior linebacker Ryan McAleenan. At a time when UNR had gained control of the game and was marching toward a potential lead, Valoaga set the Wolf Pack off-course and went streaking alongside McAleenan into the corner of the end zone.
“The ball was tipped and I bobbled it before just taking off,” McAleenan said of his first-ever pick-six, the biggest play of his life so far. “… I’m so happy right now. I can’t even explain it.”
The Fremont Cannon is on an equipment truck bound for Las Vegas and a new paint job following UNLV’s thrilling 23-17 victory. It’s the Rebels’ second straight win in Reno, and it came in front of a nearly sold-out crowd that saw the weather turn from beautiful skies to chilling rain just as the home team was flipping the script in the game.
UNLV (2-3, 1-0) dominated every facet of the first half except on the scoreboard, which favored the Rebels only 7-0 when quarterback Blake Decker went to the turf in the final minute. Decker injured his left, nonthrowing shoulder and wore a sling for the rest of the game; Coach Tony Sanchez was optimistic that Decker wouldn’t be sidelined for long.
“We’ll see how bad the separation is,” Sanchez said.
Just like in the second quarter against UCLA, sophomore quarterback Kurt Palandech was forced into action.
Against the Bruins he responded by passing 4-of-15 with an interception and two fumbles. This time his second and third snaps were a 25-yard completion to Kendal Keys and a 12-yard touchdown run that gave UNLV some desperately needed breathing room.
“In the past when those momentum swings happened, they happened in the opposite direction for the other team,” Sanchez said. “… Tonight the momentum swings came for the Rebels, and that’s a big, big deal for our program moving forward.”
In the second half, UNLV’s offense was a shell of the run-dominating unit that had built the lead. Five of the Rebels’ first six possessions ended with punts that coincided with UNR’s offense finding life and cutting the deficit to 13-10. The lone exception was McAleenan’s pick-six with 8:27 remaining, which sent a wave of confidence over his teammates.
“The bench went nuts,” Palandech said. “… It was a game-changing play for sure.”
But this being a UNLV football game, it couldn’t be that easy. UNR responded with an impressive nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to keep the pressure on, and a poor decision by Palandech while trying to make a play instead of going down in bounds before a field goal left the Wolf Pack with 1:53 on the clock and 75 yards between them and victory.
They didn’t make it halfway there.
Betting boards are giving UNLV a much better chance this week at UNR after the Rebels' 80-8 victory against Idaho State, and Sun sports editor Ray Brewer tells reporters Case Keefer and Taylor Bern that UNLV coach Tony Sanchez will be riding the Fremont Cannon back to Vegas.
“It got a little scary for a little bit,” Sanchez said.
The way UNR’s offense jump-started in the second half only further highlighted the importance of UNLV senior punter Logan Yunker, the only player who’s been on both sides of the rivalry. Yunker was in Reno for a year and didn’t play before transferring to Las Vegas. Saturday night his first four punts made the Wolf Pack start from their own 7-yard line or worse, and it was only when UNR (2-3, 0-1) wasn’t so backed up that the offense showed any real life.
“When you think about the way he flipped field position, he might be the player of the game,” Sanchez said.
Step through the doors into UNLV’s locker room at the Lied Athletic Complex and directly to the right is a wood platform that currently holds a sign. It reads "WIN THE CANNON WIN THE WEST."
The sign was always meant as a temporary placeholder for the heaviest trophy in college football, but no one could say how long it would be required. Turns out not long in the new era, as Sanchez became the first coach since Jeff Horton in 1994 to win his debut against the Wolf Pack.
Sanchez oozes confidence, yet that’s not always enough. He can preach staying the course and try to instill a belief that the work the Rebels put in day in and day out will pay off, but until they respond when everything’s against them, there’s no sure way to know it’s working.
One play provided an answer.
“That might have been the biggest defensive turnover I’ve ever been around in my career,” Sanchez said.
Once he tipped the pass, Valoaga looked around for a second before spotting McAleenan with the ball and plentiful space. Instinct took over for both players as McAleenan put his sights on the corner of the end zone and Valoaga took off as a bodyguard looking to block anyone who stood in their way.
By the time Stewart caught up, it was too late.
“We just ran in,” Valoaga said.
And just like that the Rebels will hold an impromptu art class Monday on campus. Paintbrushes will be provided.