Sunday, Sept. 20, 2009 | 2:30 a.m.
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Ryan Greene and Rob Miech break down the circus that was UNLV's 34-33 victory over Hawaii on Saturday night at Sam Boyd Stadium, take a look at how the win resurrects the Rebels following the heartbreak of a week ago and also take a look ahead to next week's trip to Wyoming.
- Opponent: Wyoming
- Date: Sept. 26, 12 p.m. PST
- Where: Laramie, Wyo.
- TV: None
- Radio: ESPN Radio 1100 AM
While Mike Sanford's personal physician might not recommend making it a regular occurrence, the fifth-year UNLV coach knew that having his team back in a pressure-packed, late-game situation a week after suffering heartbreak in one just like it could be helpful.
"Well, it's not good for my heart or my blood pressure, but other than that, yes," he said. "It was good we were put in that situation and it was good we were successful in that situation."
That situation began with the Rebels taking the ball at their own 33-yard line with 5:16 to play, trailing visiting Hawaii by five points.
It ended with senior receiver Ryan Wolfe making a cameo on defense, breaking up the Warriors' final desperate heave for the end zone from midfield and securing a 34-33 victory Saturday night at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Oh yeah, in the middle of it was junior quarterback Omar Clayton leading a 14-play, 67-yard drive, with the capper being yet another clutch touchdown grab by sophomore wideout Phillip Payne with just 32 seconds to play.
"People that are successful in the clutch love being in the clutch," Sanford said, recalling one of the messages he sent to his team in the wake of last week's tough-to-swallow 23-21 loss to Oregon State. "Instead of being afraid of it, just look at it as a great opportunity. And our guys did."
In a lot of ways, up until the closing minutes, Saturday's game played out the same way last week's loss did, with UNLV committing a bevy of mistakes, be it in the form of blown scoring opportunities, turnovers or puzzling penalties.
But it was working both ways, too, as neither team allowed itself to take control in the first half, and Hawaii took a 20-14 lead into the locker room.
"Even after that, people were still motivated to win," Clayton said of a first half in which UNLV committed four penalties and threw two interceptions. "There was a lot of football to play, and we weren't losing by a tremendous amount."
UNLV appeared ready to pounce at the start of the second half, executing a 16-play, 67-yard drive that chewed up nearly nine minutes of game clock. It kept the ball out of the hands of Hawaii quarterback Greg Alexander, who carved up the Rebels defense in the first half in prolific fashion, throwing for 341 yards and two touchdowns.
However, the drive ended with a thud — literally — as Kyle Watson's 24-yard field goal attempt banged off of the left upright and gave the Warriors a chance to put a firm grip on the game.
"We went for it on fourth down twice on that drive with a purpose," Sanford said of their two successful conversions. "We needed to rest our defense, we needed to move the ball, we needed to have positive field position, and be put in a situation where we back them up. Regardless of what happened, that was a positive thing to take that hting all the way down there."
The defense forced Hawaii into its lone three-and-out of the entire game on the ensuing possession, but the rest the unit got before that was key, as it was a true, old-fashioned shoot-out from that point on.
The two teams combined in the end for 965 yards of total offense and 51 first downs in front of what was pretty much a neutral crowd of 29,717.
And in the end, UNLV had the better of the two gunslingers when it counted the most.
While Alexander couldn't explode in the second half like he did in the first, Clayton took the spotlight after the intermission, going 19-of-26 for 221 yards and two touchdown tosses. He also had an 11-yard TD run in the fourth quarter.
It was arguably the best half of football he's played in a Rebels uniform, coming right on the heels of one in which he looked uncomfortable at times and threw two uncharacteristic interceptions.
"I think Omar Clayton is almost a microcosm of our entire team in that same regard, in that Omar didn't have a very good first half, but came back in the second half, had a tremendous second half, made a ton of plays and his cool and composure were awesome," Sanford said.
The best of those plays was obviously the 15-yard touchdown strike to Payne, who for the fourth time in 12 career games caught a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter or overtime that either tied the game or gave the Rebels the lead.
Oddly enough, he was found alone on the right side with single coverage applied to him.
He was left alone to victimize cornerback Tank Hopkins, who was as successful as just about anyone else who has tried to defense Payne on the fade route in his young UNLV career.
"I was really surprised that they didn't have a safety (on him, too)," Clayton said. "Most teams in the red zone like to move a safety over to double cover Phil, and they didn't, so I took my opportunity to give Phil a jump ball, and he did what he usually does."
Added Payne: "It's big for us. After last week, everyone was down. You could tell by the interviews everyone was down. We had it at the end, they basically took it away from us. It basically builds the morale up for us."
Sanford, who was soaked in Gatorade during a rowdy celebration in the home locker room, pointed out that the emotional victory over a team that thumped the Rebels in both 2006 and 2007 by a combined score of 91-27 will give his team a much-needed shot of confidence.
It couldn't come at a better time, as the 2-1 Rebels now make back-to-back road trips to Wyoming next Saturday, then up to Reno in two weeks. After that comes consecutive home games against Mountain West Conference heavyweights BYU and Utah.
"This was a great motivator for this team, just because having the kind of season we want to have, there's gonna be close games throughout the season, and we have to be able to take the ball down and score to take the lead, get stops and finish games," Clayton said. "It was great to do it tonight, especially after last week, and get a win."