Tom R. Smedes / Assocaited Press
Published Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017 | 5:01 p.m.
Updated Saturday, Nov. 25, 2017 | 5:16 p.m.
UNLV football players emerged from the locker room minutes after losing to UNR with tears still fresh in their eyes. The Rebels' season ended today just like it began in early September — with wasting chances.
The Rebels settled for three field goals instead of touchdowns at UNR in the Fremont Cannon rivalry game, surrendering a second-half lead in a 23-16 defeat to finish the season with a 5-7 record and one victory shy of becoming bowl eligible.
Just like in some of the other setbacks, the Rebels lost to an opponent they arguably should have beat. Reno entered with just two wins and its defense ranked as one of the nation’s worst. Yet, UNLV scored just 16 points, and its top-20 rushing attack, managed just 164 yards.
Whether it was losing against lower-level Howard or blowing a 27-point lead at Air Force, the Rebels clearly left a few wins on the field. Five wins could have easily by seven or eight.
They had flashes of good play in most games, but couldn’t finish.
“It’s been a good year and a frustrating year,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said. “We won more games, but we left a lot of games out there that we could have won. The one thing our guys have done is given themselves a chance each and every week to win games. The frustrating thing is a lot of those games we haven’t won.”
UNLV had the ball for 13 more minutes than UNR, and despite giving up a touchdown in three plays and less than one minute into the game, was steady defensively through the third quarter. But most of its scoring chances resulted in Evan Pantels field goals, leaving the deficit manageable for the Wolf Pack to mount a comeback.
The Rebels also turned the ball over on downs twice inside the UNR 20, including late in the third quarter when they were stopped on 4th-and-1 at the 9-yard line with a seven-point lead.
They could have elected to kick another field goal for a two possession lead entering the fourth quarter. Instead, Reno gained momentum by driving 91 yards for a touchdown, and never looked back for a second-straight win in the series.
“Fourth down and one you have to pick that up if you are going to win a rivalry game,” Sanchez said. “We have done it time and time again. You have to be tough enough to pick that up. “
It’s easy to think what could have been, and not just today.
Pantels had four field goals against Howard in another situation where failing to convert near the endzone was costly. The defense faltered many times, especially in blowing the lead at Air Force, and in brutal defeats to Utah State, San Diego State and Howard.
The Rebels have improved their win total by one game in each of Sanchez’s three seasons. That’s small consolation, especially for the program’s seniors, for being one quarter away from reaching a bowl. And, of course, losing another game to rival UNR.
“It isn’t way we wanted (to end) at all,” senior defender Mike Hughes Jr. said. “I wouldn’t say it was a failure of season. We picked it up every year, but when you are a senior you can’t take slow progress.”
Sanchez talked briefly about the season as whole and said he’ll take a deep dive in evaluating the program, including coaches and personnel. It’s similar protocol each offseason.
The Rebels have their quarterback of the future in freshman Armani Rogers, who showed his progress two weeks ago in a final-minute scoring drive to beat New Mexico. He finished the season with 970 rushing yards and eight touchdowns, and 1,471 passing yards and six scores.
Rogers had a 12-yard touchdown run seconds into the second quarter to give UNLV a 7-6 lead. He rushed for 49 tough yards, and was hit many times. The Rebels had a few throws into the endzone the rest of the game, but couldn’t convert.
“We just have to get better in the offseason,” Rogers said. “We have to execute better on third and fourth down when we go for it. ...I feel like we left something on the table. No doubt, I feel we put everything on the table as well. We made a few mistakes, but everybody is going to make a few mistakes here and there. We gave it our all every time stepped on the football field. Nobody quit.”
UNLV has played in four all-time bowl games, most recently after the 2013 season. It’s never played in consecutive bowl games. That what makes losing a winnable game at UNR so frustrating.
“We aren’t where we want to be,” Sanchez said.