Eugene Tanner / Associated Press
Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016 | 2 a.m.
The Rebels won in the final minute at Hawaii and now they return home to face Colorado State with a chance to get to .500 on the season. Las Vegas Sun sports editor Ray Brewer and sports writers Case Keefer and Taylor Bern discuss whether or not winning one coin-flip game can help the Rebels in their next one.
The Rebels gathered on Sunday like they do every week, but it’s always more fun when the team meeting is breaking down a victory rather than a loss. Especially when it’s an exciting one like Saturday’s back and forth 41-38 victory at Hawaii.
“It’s not one of those almosts again, it’s like ‘Wow we did it,’ so there’s a whole sense of energy when you come back in the building on Sunday night,” coach Tony Sanchez said.
UNLV (3-4, 2-1) returns home this week with a chance to get to .500 against a Colorado State (3-4, 1-2) team in a similar position. The game kicks off Saturday at 2:38 p.m. and will air on Root Sports and stream on UNLVRebels.com.
The Rebels are 2.5-point favorites against the Rams, who are coming off a 28-23 loss at Boise State. So on paper the game should be close in the fourth quarter, a position increasingly familiar to UNLV.
“If you continue to give yourself a chance you’re going to find a way to win some games,” Sanchez said.
The Rebels have given themselves a lot of chances under Sanchez but rarely has it resulted in victories. In 14 of 19 games Sanchez has coached at UNLV, the score has been within a touchdown either way in the fourth quarter, and three of last year’s Mountain West losses were by seven points or less.
The margin is incredibly small in those circumstances, so much so that it’s fair to list an ill-timed, two-minute rainstorm as one of the top two or three reasons the Rebels ultimately lost 31-28 last year at Fresno State. The victory at Hawaii was the second time that Sanchez’s Rebels have won a game that really could have gone either way, and on Sunday night Sanchez showed the team three plays that he felt swung it UNLV’s direction.
Lexington Thomas’ game-tying touchdown in the fourth quarter and Evan Pantels’ 28-yard game-winning field goal were both in there, but the focus wasn’t on either of those players, and they were joined by a tackle in the first quarter. Game-saving plays can come at any point in the game, Sanchez said, and backup safety Dalton Baker coming from behind the play to chase down Hawaii returner Paul Harris at UNLV’s 25-yard line on the opening kickoff was one of them.
“The effort that he showed turning around and chasing it down from literally 15 yards from behind, it was a fanatical effort,” Sanchez said. “You can ask these guys, I used some choice words when I described how excited I was.”
UNLV’s defense came in and forced a three-and-out that backed Hawaii up so far it punted, turning a potential 7-0 or 3-0 deficit into handing the offense the ball with the game scoreless. Looking at the key fourth quarter plays, Sanchez focused on a couple of guys who don’t get a lot of playing time.
Right tackle Nathan Jacobson’s helmet came off, so for one play backup J'Ondray Sanders had to hustle onto the field to fill in. Sanders got a pancake block on a Hawaii defender that helped free Thomas for his 34-yard score that tied the game at 38.
“It’s the only snap he played all game, but when he was called he was ready,” Sanchez said of Sanders.
Then there was junior Kurt Palandech, whose lone series at quarterback never went anywhere after running back Charles Williams lost 10 yards fumbling a pitch. That may have been Palandech’s last chance for a while as Sanchez said he doesn’t plan to relieve starter Dalton Sneed in the future, but Palandech is also the holder on kicks and on the game-winning attempt he snared what Sanchez called a bad snap and set it in time for Pantels.
“Those three plays are plays that people don’t really see and they make all the difference in the world to us as a team,” Sanchez said.
Those little things are often the difference in close games. The Rebels know this better than most, and they also know the path to another pleasant Sunday is paved by being the team on the right side of those plays.