Two teams traveling in opposite directions met Friday night in Las Vegas, and they both left the game traveling in that same direction. After a lightning 4-1 start, the UNLV Rebels have fallen back with 4 straight losses and quickly fading hopes of a bowl game. On the other side, Fresno State’s dream season quickly evaporated to a 1-4 start, but they have asserted control of the West Division with 4 straight wins and the return of many injured star players. UNLV finished the night with 5 straight losses and a looming rivalry game that will decide their bowl eligibility, and Fresno stretched their win streak to 5 as they become bowl eligible with 2 games to go.
The Rebels were able to get on the board first, as a steady diet of running the ball set Daniel Gutierrez up for a 42yd boot a short 3 minutes into the game. Fresno would answer with their own scoring drive, this time with a touchdown. Despite giving up a sack on the 1st play of the drive, their only one of the night, the offense moved down the field with precision until Jake Haener hit Jalen Moreno-Cropper across the middle with a pass, and Moreno-Cropper took it 33 yards to the endzone, just scooting inside the pylon to take the lead for the first time.
If there’s been a recurring theme for the last few seasons in Fresno, it’s that mobile QBs continue to cause the defense issues. I’m sure it’s a common thing around college football, but since I spend so much time watching the Bulldogs, I notice it more with them. Doug Brumfield had his absolute way with the defense in the first half, rushing 10 times for 60 yards and 1 touchdown, including putting UNLV back in front in the first quarter 10-7. He ran the ball 5 yards into the endzone, and continued to extend plays and elude pressure through the course of the game, until an apparent ankle injury slowed him down in the second half.
This is a game recap about UNLV in Vegas, so yes, I’m going to insert my one legally obligated gambling reference here. On the ensuing drive, Jeff Tedford truly decided to roll the dice on a fake punt on 4th and 1. The ball was snapped directly to tight end Jake Boust, who rushed forward 3 yards for an easy conversion to keep the drive going. Unfortunately, that gamble backfired on the next play, as the Dogs tried to get fancy with a jet sweep to Nikko Remigio that ended with a fumble recovered by the Rebels in Bulldog territory. The Fresno defense did stand tall though, forcing another Gutierrez field goal instead of allowing a touchdown. It did stretch the Rebel lead to 6, but it kept the Dogs clearly in the game as the 2nd quarter started.
Jake Haener took the lead back for Fresno, as they completed a 9 play, 74yd march down the field with 2 20+yd passes to Nikko Remigio and Jalen Moreno-Cropper, along with 2 receptions for Erik Brooks. Jordan Mims would finish off the drive in the endzone as he scooted 5 yards for the touchdown, and Dylan Lynch put the PAT through to go ahead 14-13 with 6 minutes remaining in the half.
The Rebels weren’t quite ready to head to the locker room, as they had one more scoring drive left before the half. The running game again came up huge for the Rebels, as they ran the ball down the field until they were stopped at the Fresno State 9yd line, forcing another field goal by Gutierrez. UNLV took that two point lead into the half, but Doug Brumfield had to be helped to the locker room by a couple of trainers. This would come into play in the second half, as he definitely seemed to be hobbled and less able to take off and run from the pocket.
Fresno got the ball after the half, and used up half of the 3rd quarter on their first drive on a 12 play, 67 yard drive that they converted into another Dylan Lynch field goal to go back ahead, now 17-16. UNLV spent their next drive going straight backwards, as they started with a false start and then added an offensive pass interference penalty to set up a massive 3rd and 23 that they only gained 9 yards on. The Bulldogs would take this empty possession to heart, as they ran their own 10 play, 46yd drive before Jake Haener hit Zane Pope on a beautiful pass into the corner of the endzone to bring the lead up to 24-16.
On the ensuing drive, Doug Brumfield was able to hit a long pass down the middle to Shelton Zeon that appeared to everyone there and watching the game to have been knocked loose by Evan Williams and recovered by LJ Early. Yet, somehow, the review officials found a super secret angle that no one else had that showed him still with possession. UNLV converted the overturned call into another Gutierrez field goal, bringing them back to 5 points down as the 3rd quarter came to an end.
The 4th quarter began with Fresno State driving, and UNLV helped them along the way with back-to-back pass interference calls on what would have probably been touchdown passes. This ended up benefiting them, as the Dogs weren’t able to convert in the red zone, and Dylan Lynch sent through a 23yd field goal to back ahead by 8 points. That would quickly be erased on the ensuing drive, as UNLV converted a 4th and 1 into a touchdown as Aidan Robbins burst through the line for a 66 yard scoring run, capped off by a 2pt conversion pass from Brumfield to Nick Williams. All of a sudden, we’re tied up at 27 in the 4th quarter.
Any positive momentum for Vegas quickly dissolved, as Jake Haener hit Jalen Moreno-Cropper on the short side of the field, as Cropper did the rest on a 65yd catch and run to the end zone to cap a 3 play and 37 second drive to put themselves back in the lead, one that they would not relinquish this time. UNLV’s last true threat fell as the Bulldogs stood strong on a 4th and 1 call, bringing down Aidan Robbins behind the line of scrimmage as Morice Norris zipped around the edge and caught his legs before he could get to the line of scrimmage. This gave Fresno the ball back well within Rebel territory, so now it became all about running the clock down. They got the clock down below 3 minutes left before Dylan Lynch sent his last field goal of the day through from 29 yards out. Was good for the Bulldogs to see that Lynch could operate as the primary kicker while Abraham Montano recovers from a groin injury. Lynch was perfect on the night, 3/3 on field goals and 4/4 on PATs.
UNLV got the ball back with more than two and a half minutes left, and could have gone for the win like Fresno did against SDSU 2 weeks ago. They even had two timeouts in their pocket to work with. Instead, Marcus Arroyo ran plays straight in the middle of the field, and let the clock run continually on the drive. Instead of having a chance at even a tie, they seemed more than content to just beat the spread at the end of the game, kicking a 33yd field goal with 10 seconds remaining. Very strange clock management, and one I’d like to see an answer for from Arroyo and his staff.
Moving forward, Fresno State is now bowl eligible, and is one win away from locking in their spot in the MW Title Game. A spot no one really expected them to be after losing to UCONN and Boise to go to 1-4 on the season. These 5 straight wins have completely reinvigorated the season, and they look poised for a rematch with Boise in December. Meanwhile, the Rebels will now need to win their last two games against Hawaii and arch-rival Nevada to secure a bowl game. That is eminently doable for them, but their margin for error is now zero, especially with a tough in-state rivalry game to decide everything. They will be on the road against the Warriors, then home for the Fremont Cannon game against the Wolf Pack.
For the Bulldogs, they’ll stay on the road this week, heading up from Vegas to Reno against a shambling UNR team. If they win against Nevada, they will officially win the West Division for the 5th time in 10 years. Getting to 8-4 would be an incredible turnaround for a team that seemed lost after Jake Haener and Evan Williams went down, Their returns have been huge for the team and staff, and a double-digit win season isn’t completely off the table yet.
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