Sunday, Nov. 29, 2009 | 2:22 a.m.
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Ryan Greene, Christine Killimayer and Ray Brewer discuss a busy day in UNLV athletics, including the hoops squad's resounding 76-71 victory over No. 16 Louisville at the Mack and the football team's sendoff to coach Mike Sanford and its 16 seniors coming in the form of a 28-24 come-from-behind victory at home over San Diego State.
Now, those remaining within the UNLV football program can at least sit and wait for impending change with smiles on their faces.
The Rebels sent their senior class — along with fired fifth-year coach Mike Sanford — off with a win, defeating San Diego State 28-24 in comeback fashion on Saturday night at a sparsely populated Sam Boyd Stadium.
The announced crowd of 13,730 — which in reality was probably less than half of that — saw UNLV erase what at one point was a 24-7 Aztec lead in the second half.
"In my mind, I was thinking it was unreal," senior linebacker Jason Beauchamp said of the deficit. "I think the biggest thing is I never lost hope, but yeah, definitely for a second I was wondering how this could be happening in my last game as a senior."
Beauchamp's unit, oddly enough, was largely responsible for the turnaround.
One of the most porous defenses in the Football Bowl Subdivision ranks all season, the Rebels created momentum with big plays, and more importantly, sustained that positive energy.
Junior quarterback Omar Clayton scored on a seven-yard run mid-way through the third quarter to pull UNLV within 10 points at 24-14, but the biggest play of the comeback came early in the final stanza.
San Diego State QB Ryan Lindley had a pass tipped up in the air by defensive end Malo Taumua. Already charging on a safety blitz, senior Terrance Lee snatched the ball from its flight in full stride, gliding untouched for a 40-yard score.
It went in the books as UNLV's first — and only — defensive touchdown of the season.
Kyle Watson missed a 37-yard field goal with just over three minutes to play which could have tied it up for the Rebels, but the defense came through with a three-and-out stop, capped by a sack of Lindley by senior end Heivaha Mafi.
UNLV got one more shot, and this time wouldn't let it slip.
The offense, which had sputtered for much of the evening in terms of efficiency, went 56 yards in three plays, including a 35-yard pass from Clayton to senior Jerriman Robinson, and then a 17-yard TD strike from Clayton to sophomore Phillip Payne with 1:24 to play.
"It wouldn't be right if it didn't end with a last-second game-winner from Phillip Payne," said Clayton, who celebrated with more flair than normal following the connection. "I can't even explain to you how good it feels to end the season with a smile and on a good note. Just especially being down, I didn't play well in the first half really at all. I just kind of came out in the second half and decided to make it happen."
After going 11-of-18 for 125 yards and two interceptions in the first half, Clayton went 10-of-17 for 149 yards and both a TD toss and a scoring run after the intermission.
"Not only did the season not go well, but we don't know as players what to look forward to, because the guys who recruited us, the guys we've been with for years and built relationships with, they're not gonna be here," said Clayton, one of the squad's key underclassmen.
For Payne, the TD capped a slump-busting performance, of sorts. After fading down the season's final stretch and being plagued by a case of the drops, he caught five passes for 107 yards and his seventh touchdown of the season. The showing couldn't have come at a better time, as he was key in filling in for senior Ryan Wolfe, whose career ended a week prematurely after both the school's and Mountain West Conference's all-time leading pass-catcher broke his foot in practice during the bye week.
"Last home game, I felt bad because I was just dropping everything," he said. "It felt good to come back home and make some plays and send coach Sanford out with a win, because he's done everything for me."
Still, the defense made it all possible.
As a unit, the Rebels recorded eight tackles for loss, three sacks, broke up six passes and had two interceptions. Leading the way was Beauchamp, who had 15 tackles, 2.5 for loss and a QB takedown.
It may have not come until a somewhat meaningless regular season finale, but it was one of UNLV's more complete performances in a disappointing 5-7 season.
"This has been a very difficult year. It's been a very difficult last two weeks," said Sanford, who ended his five-year run at UNLV with a 16-43 record. "But it's funny, because when you have a difficult time, there's all kinds of great things that come out of it."