AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
Sunday, Sept. 14, 2008 | 2:15 a.m.
UNLV vs. ASU game stats
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- Opponent: Iowa State
- Date: Sept. 20, 6 p.m.
- Where: Sam Boyd Stadium
- Where: Las Vegas
TEMPE, Ariz. -- Defensive tackle Malo Taumua proudly brandished the fresh strawberry on the underside of his right forearm Saturday night. That spot of skin and muscle blocked a field goal attempt and secured UNLV's 23-20 overtime upset of No. 15 Arizona State in Tempe.
Head coach Mike Sanford sat at the podium down the hall from a jubilant locker room covered with the contents of four Gatorade coolers. He couldn't sit still, couldn't stop smiling and couldn't stop praising his young men as he relayed his emotions to a smattering of microphones and tape recorders.
Quarterback Omar Clayton was as defiant as ever, speaking with a "we told you so" tone, ignoring the throbbing pain in his jaw and instead, verbally sending the message one last time for those still not convinced.
Moments like the one the UNLV football team experienced in Sun Devil Stadium can draw these out-of-character reactions from anyone, be it a veteran coach or a late teen/early 20-something athlete.
And the Rebels, now 2-1 and in prime position to swing the program's poor fortunes of recent years in a new direction, plan to let this soak in for a bit.
"The first thing I want these guys to do is enjoy this game, because I'm gonna enjoy it," Sanford said. "Our players believed, our coaches believed, and that's how you win those games. It's not by accident. I'm overwhelmed, but I knew we were gonna win the game, so that's the exciting thing about it. I think the biggest thing about it is this is just the beginning."
It makes the most sense to start at the beginning.
All week, both sides disputed the notion that Arizona State would be overlooking the seemingly overmatched Rebels with No. 2 Georgia set to visit a week later in one of the early college football season's marquee matchups.
"Looking ahead for Georgia is not a bad thing for them, because if they look past us, they leave themselves vulnerable," Clayton said. "Comments like (a couple that ASU made in the local media later in the week) were slightly disrespectful. It shows that you don't respect your opponent, and anytime you do that, you leave yourself vulnerable to things like tonight."
Overlooking UNLV or not, Arizona State didn't appear to be all that interested for the better part of Saturday night's contest. Lacking visible fire or much of a killer instinct, the Sun Devils allowed UNLV to hang around the entire night. The Rebels really didn't find their groove until the third quarter, when a 20-10 deficit was showing on the scoreboard.
The first shot back came throughout the first half of the fourth quarter, as UNLV ran a grinding 18-play drive -- mostly on the shoulders of the offensive line and tailback Frank Summers -- that resulted in a chip shot of a field goal for Kyle Watson. That made it a 20-13 game with 6:28 to go.
"After we got the field goal, and there were six or so minutes left, we knew that if we got the ball back, it would be up to the offense to finally pay the defense back," Clayton said. "A lot of the time last year our biggest problem was our defense would make stops and we couldn't move the ball."
The defense lived up to its end of the bargain, and UNLV took over at its own 26-yard line with 3:03 to play. As the clock dripped, the feeling in Sun Devil Stadium got more and more creepy. Strange things began happening.
Things like Clayton finding a wide open Summers on a wheel route during what could have been a busted play, but instead netted 29 yards. Things like Phillip Payne fooling ASU defensive back Omar Bolden on a fourth-and-4 play at the ASU 18-yard line to shake free for a 9-yard gain. And, of course, things like Payne's grab just seconds later.
On second and goal, with Payne lined up far to Clayton's left, the quarterback lobbed a ball to the edge of the end zone for the 6-foot-3 freshman out of Western High. Payne pushed backward off his feet, extended his right arm far behind his head and snatched the ball as he collapsed with just one paw. That play, with 18 seconds left, is a play sure to live on in Rebels fans' minds until long after Payne is gone from the program.
"Tell you the truth, I didn't even know what the play was," Payne recalled with a laugh. "We figured it was a fade. Goal line, that's what we usually run. I was shocked (after the catch). Happy is not the right word."
Added Clayton, smiling at Payne: "This right here? This is my early Christmas present. He did a great job from Day One. I call him my new toy. I just get to toss him the ball, and I just have tremendous faith that whatever I give him, he's not gonna let the defender get it or go get it himself."
UNLV then lost the coin toss in overtime, and going by the book, Arizona State decided to go on defense first. The Rebels inched down to the 3 yard line, and Kyle Watson gave UNLV its first lead of the game from 20 yards out, 23-20.
ASU, though, got conservative when it took the ball, and after two runs up the gut for 7 yards, Rudy Carpenter fired an incomplete pass to Jovon Williams. ASU had to settle for an attempt to tie the game, but the ball never made it far. Taumua exploded through the line, sent the ball flying backward and continued to run as teammates mobbed him and a celebration erupted.
"I don't even know what happened," Sanford said of the game's final play. "I have to see it on tape. I just think it was a bunch of guys believing they would find a way to win, and they found a way to win."
And just like that, the 2008 season now has an added zest. The Rebels have already matched their win total from each of the past four seasons, and the schedule lays out more than favorably, with six of their final nine games to be played at Sam Boyd Stadium. The first two of those come in the next two weeks, beginning Saturday with Iowa State.
The Cyclones, also 2-1, lost to rival Iowa Saturday afternoon, 17-5.
"We come in on Sunday, we're gonna watch the tape, we're gonna celebrate, we're gonna give awards out and all that stuff," Sanford said. "And at the end of Sunday's meeting, it's a whole new week, and it's all about Iowa State."
Awards should be plentiful, too. The offensive line opened up bigger holes for the ball carriers as the game went along. The offense still has yet to turn the ball over this season. Omar Clayton, who the training staff thought may have had a broken jaw at halftime, finished with 191 yards and two TD passes. The defense grew stronger against the run in the second half and got decent pressure on Carpenter for most of the night. The list goes on and on.
The Sun Devils, on the other hand, now have to face the No. 2 Bulldogs -- 14-7 winners Saturday at South Carolina -- only now they'll do so having suffered a potentially major hit to their BCS aspirations.
"They said we wouldn't be a problem if they looked forward to Georgia," said Summers, who finished with 103 yards on 22 carries. "They can play Georgia now, and best of luck to them."