The Rebels and Cougars played Friday’s only FBS contest and they had the national spotlight all to themselves on ESPN. In Las Vegas, there was a surprising amount of optimism leading up to this game, and most of the talk around town was that although the Rebels were 0-2, they could easily have been 2-0 following a triple OT loss to Minnesota and a last second field goal loss to Northern Arizona. That, combined with the fact that Washington State barely squeaked by Eastern Washington last week, gave Rebel fans hope that Friday’s game would be much closer than last season’s 59-7 blowout loss in Pullman.
Washington State came out of the gate fast and was up 14-0 following two TD passes by backup QB Connor Halliday. They looked like they might wrap the game up early, but a couple of nice runs by Tim Cornett set up a 37 yard pass from Nick Sherry to Marcus Sullivan to put the game at 14-7 with 2:36 to go in the first quarter.
WSU went back up by 14 with a 52 yard pass from Halliday to Gabe Marks early in the second period. Halliday to Marks was somewhat of a recurring theme throughout the game, as the freshman receiver had126 reception yards last night, averaging 21 yards per reception. Nolan Kohorst hit a 22 yard field goal which cut the lead to 11 with 6:22 to go in the half, but the Cougars extended the lead to 18 less than on minute later following Marquess Wilson’s second TD catch, on a 81 yard pass from Halliday. This was exactly the kind of play which has always seemed to break the Rebels over the past few seasons, but to UNLV’s credit, they came right back and Sherry hit Sullivan for a 75 yard TD thirteen seconds later. UNLV was able to tack on an extra three points as time expired, and the home team was only down 8 at the half.
Neither team scored in the third, but Washington State went up 35-20 less than one minute into the fourth. That appeared that it might be the final score of the game, as both teams struggled to move the ball for the majority of the quarter. UNLV’s defense was strong against the run all night (they gave up a season low 93 yards on the ground) and the anemic rushing attack of the Cougars was unable to extend drives and milk the clock. That, combined with some questionable play calling by the Dread Pirate Leach and an outrageously stupid late hit by Deone Bucannon following an incomplete third down pass allowed the Rebels the opportunity to get back in the game. Sherry hit Jake Phillips for a 4 yard TD and cut the lead to eight with under two minutes remaining. UNLV failed to recover the subsequent onside kick, but got the ball back near midfield after Washington State did arguably the worst job of running out the clock you will ever see in Division I football (note to WSU: the clock stops on incomplete passes and personal foul penalties). Unfortunately for the home crowd, there was simply not enough time on the clock, and the Rebels did not even get a shot at the endzone before time ran out.
This was not the closest game UNLV played this season, but it may have been the most disappointing. The Rebels played their best four quarters of football so far and almost won a game against an AQ conference team that beat them by more than 50 points last year. The sad fact is that while the team is playing much better, the talent level of this team is closer to an FCS squad than it is to a competitive program in big time college football, and for the foreseeable future there will probably be a lot more heart breaking games like this for the Rebels.