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Bowl History: The Las Vegas Bowl

NCAA Football: Las Vegas Bowl-Arizona State vs Fresno State Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Now that it’s official that we won’t have a Fall 2020 season in the Mountain West, have to find something to do for content. So I’m going to do a dive in to the history of the conference’s bowl games. I’ll start off with our premier bowl game, the Mitsubishi Motors/GEICO/Royal Purple/Maaco/Pioneer/SEGA Sports/EA Sports Las Vegas Bowl. Especially with the 2019 edition being the last one the Mountain West champ* will play in, it’s a good time to look back through the history of the bowl game.

Before the 1992 season, Fresno State made the move to the Western Athletic Conference, leaving the Big West without a bowl location for their champion. At first, there was an attempt by the California Bowl organizers to continue on with a 1992 edition without tie-ins, but Fresno State did now grant use of Bulldog Stadium, as it was undergoing renovations and expansion. The heads of the Big West and MAC then made overtures to the city of Las Vegas, as UNLV stayed in the conference (for now). Las Vegas was of course a much better travel destination for fans than Fresno, so this was seen as a way to boost the profile of the bowl, and made life a bit easier for MAC fans traveling across the country.

Sam Boyd Stadium took over hosting duties for the 1992 edition of the bowl, which put Bowling Green State against Nevada in a great game, coming down to a 35-34 win for the Falcons on a last second touchdown in what would be Chris Ault’s last game for the Wolf pack. In 1993, Utah State went on a tear in the back half of the season, winning 5 straight games to take a share of the conference title and their first bowl game since 1961. They split the 1993 Big West title with Southwestern Louisiana, now the University of Louisiana. See WAC fans, the Big West was just as geographically challenged as we were having LA Tech. The 1993 game looked to be easily in hand for the Aggies, until Ball State came roaring back in the 4th quarter to make the game 42-33. Utah State won their very first bowl game in their history, and was the first win for the Big West in the Las Vegas Bowl.

What made the 1994 game interesting was that it was a rematch of a regular season game. The UNLV Rebels and Central Michigan Chippewas had played during the year, with CMU winning the first game. After their shock win over Nevada though, UNLV would not be denied. They blew away Central Michigan to a 52-24 win, and the first Big West title that UNLV got to keep.

The 1995 game might seem like a minor one, even though it was a ranked Toledo team against Nevada. It is a historically important game though, as it was the first FBS game to feature overtime. The rule had been approved for the 1995 bowl season as a prep for the 1996 regular season, and no one would have expected that it would happen that quickly, being the first bowl game of the post-season. Just like in 1994, this was a repeat of a regular season game, with Toledo coming in this time flying high at 9-0-1, and Nevada suffering their only loss to those Rockets. The game ended regulation tied at 34, with Nevada posing a strong 2nd half rally to send the game to bonus football. The Wolf pack kicked a field goal to take their first lead of the game, but Wasean Tait took the ball in from 2 yards out to give the Rockets the win, and their undefeated season. So now if someone asks you what the first overtime game was, now you know it was the 1995 Las Vegas Bowl.

The 1996 game would continue to match the MAC and Big West, even though UNLV had made the move to the WAC before that season. In a game marked more by the wacky score line than the actual game, Nevada would prevail 18-15 over Ball State during Chris Ault’s second tenure in Reno. This would also be the last time that the Big West and the MAC would face each other in Vegas, as the champion of the Big West moved to the Humanitarian Bowl in Boise, and the MAC champion moved to the Motor City Bowl in Detroit. To replace it, UNLV’s new conference the WAC would take over hosting the bowl against an at-large team in 1997.

The first matchup of the new WAC era did not go well for the hosts, as the No.23 Air Force Falcons were clobbered by Oregon 41-13 as Dirk Koetter’s offense was just too much for the Falcons. The 1998 edition also ended in a loss for the WAC, as the San Diego State Aztecs fell 20-13 to the North Carolina Tar Heels, in the only bowl game in history to match 2 teams that started the year 0-3. The WAC continued to have some issues in the Las Vegas Bowl in 1999, as Fresno State fell to the Mountain West’s Utah Utes on a missed extra point, 17-16. This would also be the last time that the WAC would play host of the game, as the Mountain West Conference had been formed, and had drawn the Rebels in to the new conference. The 1999 was also the first sponsored Las Vegas Bowl, as EA Sports took over the rights for the year, before handing it back to the Las Vegas Visitors Authority.

In 2000, UNLV got to play in their home bowl game for the first time in the Mountain West, and notched a strong win against the Arkansas Razorbacks of the SEC 31-14 in John Robinson’s first year. The 2001 game would be the first time that ESPN outright purchased the rights to the bowl game, and it also garnered the sponsorship of SEGA and SEGA Sports for the next two seasons. The Utah Utes would make a return appearance to the bowl game in 2001 against USC in the first season of Pete Carroll. The Utes won a 10-6 game over the Carson Palmer led Trojans in a game all about defense. This was also the first time the Las Vegas Bowl would be held on Christmas Day, filling the gap left by the loss of the Aloha and Oahu Bowl the year before.

The 2002 game was the second Christmas Day Las Vegas Bowl, and was historic for multiple reasons. UCLA won 27-13 over New Mexico in coach Ed Zekirian won his one and only head coaching appearance as an interim coach. On the other side, the University of New Mexico made history by sending Katie Hnida out to kick a PAT in the 1st quarter, making her the first woman to take the field in a D-1A game. UCLA blocked the kick, but history had been made. She would later on score the first points for a woman in the first game of 2003 against Texas State.

The 2003 game made the move to Christmas Eve, hosting as part of a back-to-back bowl with the Hawaii Bowl as they switched from the year before. This year also went without the sponsorship of SEGA Sports, reverting to just being the Las Vegas Bowl. The less said about the game, the better though, as Oregon State trounced New Mexico 55-14, setting records for both points scored in a Las Vegas Bowl, and margin of victory. Moving on.

In 2004, Pioneer Electronics would take over naming rights to show off their new PureVision plasma screen technology. This also featured Wyoming’s first trip to Vegas, and their first bowl game since 1993. After what looked like an easy UCLA win, the Cowboys rallied to upset the Bruins with a last minute touchdown throw by Corey Bramlet to make it 24-21, and seal an MVP trophy for Bramlet. 2005 would feature the first of 4 straight appearances for the BYU Cougars, leaving them with 2 wins and 2 losses. The 2006 game was a high point for the Cougars, as they came in with a 10-2 record, a Mountain West championship, and a No.20 BCS ranking. In the highest attended Vegas Bowl, they took controversial comments from Mike Belotti to heart, and proceeded to tear Oregon apart 38-8, as Oregon’s two-QB system backfired spectacularly.

2007 again featured a ranked MWC champion BYU team, this time looking for revenge. UCLA and BYU had met in September of that season, with UCLA taking a 27-17 win behind BYU transfer QB Ben Olson. But by the time the bowl game arrived, UCLA had gone backwards, and the Cougars had only gotten better, especially with word that UCLA coach Karl Dorrell had been fired after the season finale. The Cougars though learned a tough lesson at the end of the first half, as they tried running one more play instead of taking a knee to end the half. Running back Harvey Unga fumbled the ball, and UCLA ran it in for a touchdown, to end the half at 17-13 BYU. The Cougars would not score in the second half, but the defense rose up to keep UCLA off the scoreboard, only allowing a field goal to bring the Bruins within one point. They would try one final field goal as the clock expired, but Eathyn Manumaleuna was able to get a hand on the ball, and blocked the kick. Final score, BYU 17, UCLA 16.

In 2008, BYU would once again come in to the game ranked and 10-2. This time, as the 3rd ranked team in the Mountain West, but still No.16 in the nation, against a 7-5 Arizona Wildcats team. In what would be the coldest ever Las Vegas Bowl, the Wildcats shocked the Cougars, only allowing BYU in the lead once in the 2nd quarter. Arizona won 31-21 in a massive upset for the Wildcats.

Maaco took over as the title sponsor for the 2009 bowl, one that once again saw BYU coming in with a 10-2 record against a PAC-10 opponent, this time the Beavers of Oregon State. The Cougars came in ranked #14, the Beavers were #18 in the first meeting of ranked teams in the bowl game, but only one team showed it in the game. The Cougars went over, past, and through the Beavers in an extremely windy game that had to have the Skycam removed for player safety, and a delay as the kicking net got wrapped around the goalposts. None of that stopped Max Hall and the Cougars though, as they took an easy 44-20 win over Oregon State to lock up a Top 10 ranking to end the year.

The 2010 game was an interesting one, as it also matched two ranked teams, but the biggest story was the Boise State Broncos. The 11-1 Broncos had been passed over for a BCS at-large bid, and took the Vegas Bowl slot because the PAC-10 did not have enough eligible teams to fill the space. Utah came in the bowl on a 9 game bowl winning streak, and were 2nd place in the MWC with TCU going to the Rose Bowl opening up the spot. Utah drew first blood with a 44 yard field goal, but after that, it was all Broncos. Kellen Moore continued his trip as the most underrated college QB in history as Boise took a 26-3 win to snap Utah’s bowl record, and finish the year 12-1. The other quirk of this game was that the National Anthem was performed by Boyz II Men in one heck of a throwback to the 90s.

Oh hey look, it’s a Top 10 Boise State team again. In their first year in the Mountain West, the Broncos were 11-1 again, with their only slip-up being a one point loss to TCU that kept the Broncos out of the BCS for a second straight year. The 2011 season saw Kellen Moore become the winningest QB in college football history, with a record of 50-3 in 4 incredible years. On the other side, Arizona State limped in at 6-6, with a lame duck Dennis Erickson in charge. They had started 6-2, only to lose 4 straight to become Boise’s sacrificial lamb. Even though the Broncos turned the ball over 3 times, they were on cruise control for one of Boise’s best ever teams, and eviscerated ASU 56-24. The 20th anniversary of the Las Vegas Bowl ended with a Mountain West triumph, and a new era of conference realignment sending Utah, BYU, and TCU away, and bringing in Fresno State, Nevada, Hawaii, and in 2013, Utah State, and SJSU.

In the new look Mountain West Conference, the championship ended up split 3 ways between San Diego State, Boise State, and Fresno State. The Broncos had the best overall record, so were chosen to represent the conference in the Las Vegas Bowl. They were matched with the Washington Huskies in a game that ended up much closer than anyone expected, with the Broncos only holding a 1 point advantage at the halfway point. The Broncos would add one more touchdown in the 3rd quarter to stretch the lead to 25-17, but the Huskies were not done yet, and closed the gap down to 25-23 at the end of the 3rd quarter. Washington would finally take the lead 26-25 in the 4th quarter, but the Broncos had a little bit of magic left in them. They went on one final drive down to the 11 yard line, and Michael Frisina booted the ball through to put Boise on top 28-26 with 1 minute remaining. Boise would intercept Keith Price with 14 seconds left, and the Broncos completed their 3-peat of Las Vegas Bowl wins in the most dramatic fashion yet.

The 2013 bowl game was the first sponsored by Royal Purple Automotive, and #23 Fresno State got beaten up by USC to put a huge damper on the end of their season and Derek Carr’s career. It came out after the game that he had played with a separated shoulder, but the Trojans won 45-20 to break the Mountain West’s streak in the game. The game moved to ABC for the first time, that’s really all I’ve got. Moving on.

In 2014, the Las Vegas Bowl ended up with the third choice in the Mountain West, as Boise State had qualified for the Fiesta Bowl, and Fresno State had already accepted a spot in the Hawaii Bowl. That meant that a 10-2 Colorado State would represent the conference without Jim McElwain, who was off to Florida, and play against former foe Utah in a game that wasn’t even as close as the final score looks, with Utah controlling the game all the way through to a 45-10 win against a depleted CSU team.

I’m just going to skip the 2015 game, because there wasn’t a Mountain West team involved. For some weird reason, they let BYU have our bowl slot, so they got to play Utah in a resumption of the Holy War rivalry. It was a weird game where Utah jumped out to a 35-0 lead, and barely held on to win 35-28. Moving on.

For the first time while in the Mountain West, San Diego State made the trip to Las Vegas for the bowl game. Last time they were here, they were Pacific Division champions of the WAC, and the MWC was still an airport meeting away. Royal Purple had ended their sponsorship, so again this was just the Las Vegas Bowl, which was fitting for the 25th anniversary of the game. It did take the Aztecs a bit of time to get rolling in this game, with Houston scoring 10 points in the first quarter, but once SDSU got on the board in the second quarter, they refused to look back. They turned a 10 point deficit into a 24 point winning margin by just rushing the ball again and again with Donnel Pumphrey for a smooth 34-10 win and an 11-win season for the conference champ Aztecs.

The Broncos came back to Las Vegas in 2017 after winning their 3rd conference title, and were again matched against the Oregon Ducks. The two teams have played three times, and Boise has taken all three matchups, proving the axiom true about ducks crashing on the blue field. The Broncos got out to a fast start, stretching the margin to 24-0 before Oregon even got on the board at the end of the second quarter, but back-to-back miscues brought the Ducks back in the game with 2 scores in 30 seconds before halftime. The second half was all about Boise keeping the Ducks at arm’s length for a 38-28 win, and another 11 win season for the MW champ.

Fresno State finally gets to rewrite their record in 2018, and take their first win in the Las Vegas Bowl. After finally taking down the Broncos on the Smurf Turf, the Bulldogs looked for their first Vegas Bowl win and their first ever 12 win season against the Arizona State Sun Devils under Herm Edwards. Mitsubishi Motors has now taken over as sponsor of the game, hoping to have some better success than prior bowl sponsors. The Dogs took their first drive down for a field goal, then a Tank Kelly pick-six put Fresno State in the driver’s seat. Marcus McMaryion had 2 uncharacteristic interceptions, but not even that could keep the Bulldogs from their goal. Ronnie Rivers exploded down the stretch in the game for over 200 yards and a 31-20 win for their first ever 12 win season, and what looks like the Mountain West’s last Las Vegas Bowl win.

Talk about an awkward bowl game in 2019. Boise State as champ was matched with Washington and Chris Petersen, their former coach. Making everything harder was that Petersen had announced before the game that he would be retiring afterwards, putting Boise in an impossible spot. Either ruin their former coach’s last game, or end the season with a loss to send Petersen out with a win. It was the Huskies that came to play to send their coach off well, as they pounced on the Broncos early and often for a 38-7 win. Boise didn’t even score until the 3rd quarter, but things were decided by that point.

Thus ends my history of the Las Vegas Bowl. With the Oakland Raiders moving to Las Vegas and a brand new stadium, the Vegas Bowl will now be alternating between the SEC and the Big Ten as host. The Mountain West will move to the yet to be named Los Angeles Bowl when football returns next. I know this was a long read, but it’s fun to look back at what our conference has done over the last 28 years.