Sunday, Nov. 14, 2010 | 2:15 a.m.
The Cowboys scored off of a 72-yard Alvester Alexander run on the first play of scrimmage. But from that point on, the Rebels held the upper hand, ultimately cruising to a sorely needed 42-16 win in front of a sparse crowd.
"Winning's hard; losing's easy — all you have to do is cave in, and we had a chance to do that," UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said. "That's some of that mental toughness I've alluded to at times."
It had been tough for a lot of that mental toughness to show through in what's been a string of blowout losses in recent weeks, but on the heels of that stretch, the Rebels (2-8 overall, 2-4 Mountain West) put together arguably their most complete performance of the 2010 campaign.
For now, ignore the fact that Hauck's club has three games left that all come against teams headed for bowl bids. For 60 minutes, his beat-up, depleted crew looked nothing like the team that limped home a week ago from a 55-7 drubbing at BYU.
Wyoming (2-9, 0-7) scored both of its touchdowns in the first quarter. The long run caught UNLV's defense completely by surprise, while the second was on a trick pass play by receiver David Leonard right after Michael Johnson fumbled a punt catch and gave the ball back to the Cowboys with strong field position.
Both teams came in with offenses ranking among the four worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision ranks in terms of total yardage, but the Rebels were strong from start to finish with the ball.
True freshman running back Tim Cornett scored on a pair of first quarter runs, and a 21-yard pass from senior Omar Clayton to junior Phillip Payne just before the half gave the Rebels a 21-13 advantage at the intermission. It was the only catch of the night for Payne, and the preseason All-MWC selection's first TD grab since Sept. 18.
To open the second half, UNLV strung together another strong drive, and a 1-yard plunge from Cornett put Wyoming against a wall.
While the Rebels would score twice more, it was the defense that made enough big plays and stops down the stretch to allow the entire team to breathe easy instead of panicking to cling to a lead.
"It was good; it was comfortable. We weren't biting our nails in the fourth quarter," Hauck joked. "This may sound crazy, but I think our team has tremendous confidence in their ability to play in the fourth quarter.
"When we can run the ball for 200 yards, we're going to have a good chance to win."
Hauck has made no secret since his first day on the job that he prefers his offense revolve around strong ground game principles.
Getting that old-school approach off the ground and going consistently has been a monstrous struggle all year.
UNLV's 197 rushing yards against Wyoming were by far the highest team total posted this season. Cornett led the way with 70 yards on 21 carries, scoring four total touchdowns. Clayton added 50 of his own on 11 attempts.
Meanwhile, maybe the key to the entire game was the fact that after its big opening play, Wyoming was held to only 59 rushing yards on 29 tries. It marked the first time in their last six games that the Rebels held an opponent to under 200 yards rushing.
"Tonight, we were able to fit (the defense) the right way and tackle the guy in front of us," senior linebacker Calvin Randleman said. "It's pretty much what we try to do every week, but some weeks it just doesn't work out."
Shutting down Wyoming's run game also helped take away the dual-threat capabilities of sophomore quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, who last year made his first career start in a 30-27 victory over UNLV and torched the Rebels for 268 total yards and three touchdowns. He was just 13-of-22 through the air for 108 yards and an interception, while running for 28 yards on seven carries.
On the other side, it was without question the best performance of the year from Clayton, who had been lifted and replaced by redshirt freshman quarterback-of-the-future Caleb Herring in five of the team's nine previous games. He was 13-of-18 for 163 yards and a season-high three TD passes.
Hauck praised Clayton for his management of the clock in the fourth quarter, as he led time-consuming drives and provided a calming influence over the entire team. He didn't take many risks with his arm and ran the ball hard, leading to no turnovers on the night.
Clayton was for once able to exit the locker room with a smile on his face, and he last thing that appeared to be on the minds of everyone coming out afterward was dealing with an upcoming quick turnaround.
The Rebels will play their final home game of the season on Thursday night against Air Force, who improved to 7-4 on the season and 4-3 in league play earlier in the day by beating New Mexico, 43-28, in Colorado Springs.
UNLV has lost seven of its last eight meetings against Air Force, who will also present a much tougher challenge in the run game on both offense and defense than Wyoming did.
But at least now they'll have something to be confident about heading in.
"It feels really good, obviously for our coaches and seniors, but the whole team and whole program, too," Randleman added. "We need to get the ball rolling in the right direction."
• Speedy freshman Marcus Sullivan is continuing to emerge as the season rolls on, and has been at his best since returning from a chest injury suffered on Oct. 9 at West Virginia. He caught a 41-yard touchdown pass from Clayton late but also averaged 39 yards on three kickoff returns, nearly breaking two of them for scores. With that performance, he now ranks fourth in the nation in kick return average at 29.9 yards on 19 tries.
• Tim Cornett became the first Rebel to score four touchdowns in one game since Henry Bailey did so against Central Michigan in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 15, 1994.
• Despite his struggles as a senior in grasping a new, more balanced offense, Clayton continues to move up in the UNLV record books. He now has 44 career TD passes, moving him into second place, trailing only Randall Cunningham (59). He will also likely finish the season in second all-time behind Cunningham in terms of passing yardage. With 191 more yards, he'll pass Jon Denton (6,177) for second place. Cunningham's total of 8,020 is safe.