Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015 | 12:15 a.m.
The Rebels will learn more, both in the practical film-room sense and the intangible measure of their fortitude, from their comeback than if this game had continued on its third-quarter trajectory. But in the wake of Saturday’s 33-27 overtime loss to San Jose State, that does absolutely nothing for the bottom line of the guys in the home locker room who expect to win their division.
“Absolutely devastated in there,” coach Tony Sanchez said. “That’s a tough thing and at the same time it’s a positive thing because these are games we expect to win now and we go out and we play with that type of attitude and it hurts because we know those are games that are very winnable for us. We’re not being pushed around, we’re not being walked over anymore.”
After giving up 20 unanswered points in the middle of the game, UNLV (2-4, 1-1) scored a go-ahead touchdown with 3:41 remaining and kicked a game-tying field goal with 11 seconds left. What happened in between, though, probably decided the outcome.
As it tried to retake the lead, San Jose State (3-3, 2-1) quickly reached UNLV’s 21-yard line before the Rebels’ aggressive defense held strong. UNLV sent extra pressure on three straight plays, then on the fourth-and-10 the Spartans countered UNLV’s blitz with a perfectly timed screen pass to running back Tyler Ervin, who went untouched into the end zone behind a cadre of blockers.
“Sometimes the other guy makes the right call at the right time,” said Sanchez, who added he liked every call his coordinators made in the game.
A defensive stop on that play and UNLV could have just about run out the clock or gained one first down to secure the victory. UNLV opponents this season were 2-of-12 on fourth-down attempts at that point, including a stop earlier in this game, but this one ended up among the handful of plays that ultimately left the Rebels on the wrong side.
“We let one slip,” said sophomore quarterback Kurt Palandech, who in his first-ever Division I start had a hand in some of the game’s biggest momentum swings both ways.
UNLV scored on its first drive for the third time this season and, as has been the case, the offense then disappeared. By halftime Palandech was 5-of-15 with two interceptions and a couple more that were right in the defense’s hands. It wasn’t until Ervin gifted the Rebels the turnover they needed that Palandech and the Rebels offense found another gear.
The Palandech positives after that point: He recovered a fumble to keep possession, threw a touchdown pass to Andrew Price, used the threat of a run to connect with Kendal Keys for a 49-yard pass on third-and-12 and threw a touchdown pass to Devonte Boyd. Down the stretch he went 8-of-12 for 153 yards and two touchdowns through the air.
“I’m really proud of him,” Sanchez said, adding that he never considered pulling the redshirt on backup quarterback Dalton Sneed despite the offensive struggles.
It’s not clear whether it will be Palandech or senior Blake Decker (left shoulder) at quarterback Friday at Fresno State. Either way, Palandech is going to hear a lot this week about the decision-making that led to his interceptions and, down the stretch, to suffering third-down sacks at the end of regulation and overtime that added distance to UNLV’s field-goal attempts.
“Those are critical plays,” Palandech said. “You can’t lose yards.”
Buoyed by the Fremont Cannon victory, which he correctly predicted, Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer makes all kinds of proclamations about the rest of UNLV's football season and what's in store for the basketball team while reporters Case Keefer and Taylor Bern attempt in vein to talk him down.
Sanchez agreed. The first one moved senior Nicolai Bornand’s game-tying attempt from 42 to 49 yards, “but then Nico steps up and he drills it,” Sanchez said. “That’s this team. They’re a bunch of tough guys; somebody makes a mistake or something doesn’t happen, someone else steps up and has their back.”
Bornand’s career long is 54 yards, and last year at home against Fresno State he hit a 46-yarder late to tie the game and cashed a 33-yarder to win it in overtime. That scenario nearly played out again. After the 49-yarder to tie, Bornand, a former linebacker, made the tackle on kickoff coverage and in the first possession of overtime he lined up for a 43-yard attempt.
“We knew we would make it,” Bornand said, “and then something happened.”
San Jose State broke through the left side of UNLV’s line and blocked the kick. The Spartans needed any score to win and Ervin, who averaged a season-low 4.1 yards per carry, finished it off with a touchdown that held up to review.
Ervin came in averaging the second-most all-purpose yardage in the country and actually increased that average with 249 hard-earned yards — 73 rushing, 74 receiving, 102 returning — and two touchdowns. Those final figures were more a credit to San Jose State’s perseverance than UNLV’s abilities.
The Rebels came in with a backup quarterback who’s struggled to throw the ball and facing a running back who has devoured all opposition this season. Midway through it was an easy loss that evolved into devastating setback, one in which UNLV overcame its many mistakes and mostly fulfilled its gameplan.
“We have to force them to do something different to beat us,” Sanchez said. “And they did.”