Saturday, Nov. 24, 2018 | 11:30 p.m.
The heaviest trophy in college football looked awfully light Saturday night at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Cameramen and security personnel tried to keep pace as UNLV raced the Fremont Cannon down the home sideline minutes after shocking UNR with a come-from-behind 34-29 victory. And yet the 540-pound, soon-to-be-red piece of weaponry wasn’t the most important thing the Rebels wheeled on course with the victory.
UNLV also ensured its program would stay on its current path for at least one more year despite veering off track at several points during a 4-8 regular season.
Tony Sanchez will get a fifth year as the Rebels’ coach. Tony Sanchez deserves a fifth year as the Rebels’ coach.
Not only has UNLV pulled two massive upsets in the last three weeks — it was a 14-point underdog to UNR and a 24-point underdog to San Diego State ahead of a 27-24 win —but it also achieved what will always be its most important mission. The Rebels have now beaten the hated in-state rival Wolf Pack in two of four tries under Sanchez.
“You think of the history of UNLV football, you have to go back to John Robinson, we’re talking, what, 14 or 15 years now, since you’ve had a senior class that’s won the cannon in two out of their four years,” Sanchez said. “That’s a big, big deal. That’s exciting right there.”
If that was an attempt at subtlety, it failed — and that’s fine. There was no room for subtlety after a game that embodied everything Sanchez stressed as he found himself in a fight for his job over the last month.
Sanchez’s go-to line has been that the Rebels have refused to quit even when they’ve had every reason to quit. Never was that truer than against the Wolf Pack.
UNLV was atrocious for the opening 14 minutes, and looked on the way to a performance that would rival a Mountain West Conference-opening 50-14 loss to New Mexico for the most ignominious result of the year. The Rebels trailed 23-0 after giving up points on each of the Wolf Pack’s first four drives, amassing a game’s worth of mistakes and surely sparking the 19,921 fans in attendance to theorize on targets for Sanchez’s replacement.
It was the type of moment where everyone would expect a out-of-contention team to turn on its embattled coach and go through the motions for 45 minutes before the offseason. The Rebels weren’t interested.
“We just wanted to keep fighting no matter if we got knocked down,” sophomore quarterback Armani Rogers said. “We’re going to get back up and keep fighting. Painting that cannon shows it right now.”
Rogers guided the effort, and put up quite the retort to the many whom questioned how much the foot injury he suffered against Arkansas State truly derailed UNLV’s season. Rogers had three quarters worth of heroics that backup Max Gilliam would be incapable of matching, scoring five total touchdowns — three passing and two rushing — and racking up 218 total yards.
A beleaguered defense also showed it wasn’t beyond hope of repair. After giving up 23 points and just short of 11 yards per play in the first quarter, the Rebels allowed only two field goals and 4.6 yards per play the rest of the way — not to mention managing three takeaways.
Junior linebacker Javin White halted the Wolf Pack’s final two drives with interceptions, clinching the win with his second pick when 1:19 remained on the game clock.
The celebration started immediately, as White picked up the most forgivable unsportsmanlike conduct penalty of all-time and it wasn’t long before all his teammates swarmed the field. It was a moment of ecstasy strong enough to wash away all the disappointments of a season that started with dreams of the program’s first bowl bid since 2014.
“We obviously didn’t fulfill some of our goals,” Sanchez said. “As we move forward, obviously, that’s a step we’re going to have to learn to take. We’re going to have to learn how to move past it regardless of injuries, regardless of who goes down.”
There’s a lot Sanchez will have to fix next year, and not a lot of excuses to fall back on. Gone is the convenient defense of a one-win-per-season improvement that was referenced in each of the last three years.
UNLV took a step back this year, but as a whole, Sanchez has produced better than his two predecessors through four seasons — significantly off the field and slightly on it. Neither Bobby Hauck nor Mike Sanford lasted past a fifth season, and it will be up to Sanchez to reverse the half-decade curse next year.
But at least he’ll have the opportunity, and at least he'll have an oversized symbol of what it took to get there. Sanchez missed the postgame Fremont Cannon parade on the field, as he rushed to the locker room to sit down and cool off.
The fight was exhausting, but Sanchez’s battle is just beginning as he sets off on a pivotal fifth year in command.