Friday, Dec. 22, 2000 | 9:04 a.m.
LAS VEGAS - UNLV is not a bunch of hapless losers anymore.
With quarterback Jason Thomas playing a near flawless game, UNLV completed its turnaround under John Robinson by beating Arkansas 31-14 on Thursday night in the Las Vegas Bowl.
A team that went 0-11 two years ago and lost 16 straight at one point dominated the bigger but slower Razorbacks in the second half to give Robinson his first bowl win since Southern California beat Northwestern five years ago in the Rose Bowl.
UNLV fans stormed the field and tore down the goal posts in celebration as fireworks exploded over field. Happy fans danced as Arkansas players filed silently off the field.
Thomas gave UNLV (8-5) a lead it would not give up with a 54-yard pass to Troy Mason with 2:21 left in the third quarter, and UNLV added a field goal and a final touchdown on an 18-yard run by Kevin Brown with 5:39 left.
Arkansas (6-6), which had not allowed an offensive touchdown in nine consecutive quarters, could not contain Thomas, who passed with precision and picked apart the Razorbacks defense in the second half.
Thomas, a sophomore transfer from USC completed 12 of 17 passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns, and UNLV's small but speedy running backs romped through big holes in the Arkansas defense in the second half.
Two of the touchdowns went to Nate Turner in the first half, including a 5-yard toss that tied the game with 3:12 left in the half.
UNLV's defense, meanwhile, allowed a touchdown on the opening drive and another in the second quarter but stiffened in the second half and did not give up a point. Robby Hampton threw for two first-half touchdown passes for Arkansas, but was largely ineffective in the second half.
The game was tied 14-14 at halftime, and Arkansas had a chance to take the lead on its first possession of the second half when UNLV muffed a punt snap and Arkansas took over on the Rebels' 30.
UNLV's defense stiffened, however, and after Arkansas missed a 29-yard field goal with 9:33 left in the third quarter, the Razorbacks never threatened again.
A crowd of 25,868 - a record for the ninth-year bowl - showed up to cheer a hometown team that Robinson took from 0-11 two years ago to 3-8 in his first year. UNLV was 4-5 at one point this season, but ended up winning its last four games.
Arkansas, which was also 4-5 before finishing with two wins over ranked opponents, had been happy to get into a bowl. But the estimated 4,000 fans who traveled with the team to Las Vegas could only watch in stunned silence as UNLV took over the game in the second half.
Arkansas' streak of consecutive quarters without allowing an offensive touchdown ended early in the second quarter when Thomas found Turner falling away in the corner of the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown play that tied the game 7-7.
Arkansas came right back, scoring five plays later on a quick drive that began with a 33-yard pass to Boo Williams and ended with a 25-yarder that Williams caught just over the goal line.
Thomas and Turner weren't done for the half, though, with Thomas throwing a fluttering pass that Turner caught while falling on his back on the 3-yard line. Three plays later, Thomas threw across the middle to Turner for the score that tied it 14-14 going into halftime.
Thomas was 9-of-11 in the first half, with Turner catching eight passes for 126 yards.