Friday, Dec. 2, 2011 | 2 a.m.
Phillip Payne plays his final game in a UNLV uniform Saturday afternoon at TCU. And the 6-foot-3, 205-pound wide receiver from Western High School leaves the school with a long list of accomplishments.
• Most touchdown receptions in school history (26), moving ahead of former NFL star Henry Bailey (24, 1991-94).
• Preseason first-team all-Mountain West Conference in both 2010 and 2011.
• No. 5 on UNLV career receptions list (170).
• And arguably the most memorable reception in school history — a magnificent one-handed touchdown grab while falling backwards simply referred to around the Lied Athletic Complex as “The Catch.” That play helped the Rebels shock 15th-ranked Arizona State, 23-20, in overtime in in 2008.
“’The Catch’ wasn’t even the big part (of the upset),” Payne said. “Malo (Taumua) blocking the (potential game-tying) field goal in overtime was the big part. Omar Clayton played great … It was a team effort.”
Those were the good old days, when winning five games in a season and beating teams like Arizona State and Iowa State on back-to-back weekends was still considered a bad year.
But the one big goal Payne didn’t reach in his four seasons at UNLV was playing in a bowl game.
“We were that close to being bowl eligible those first two years,” Payne said shaking his head.
Saturday, the Rebels (2-9, 1-5) will try to avoid finishing a second consecutive season with just two wins. And Payne, who seemed a shoo-in two years ago to break the Mountain West Conference career touchdown mark of 30 set by former BYU star Austin Collie, enters the game still four behind.
Payne leads the Rebels and ranks eighth in the conference in receptions (43, 3.91 per game) and receiving yards (507, 46.1 yards per game). However, because of erratic quarterback play, a switch to a more balanced run-first offense, and some head-scratching play-calling at times, he hasn’t developed into the impact player many expected him to be after his first two seasons.
Payne, who was suspended for two games early his junior season for criticizing new head coach Bobby Hauck and his staff on Twitter, was asked what he has learned during the past two difficult seasons.
“The last couple of years, I learned that no matter what, you’ve just got to keep going,” he said. “No matter all the obstacles you face, and all the stuff that you go through, you just have to keep positive even through the struggles.”
As for his play on the field?
“I’ve definitely become a better blocker,” Payne said. “And mentally I have grown, too.”
Payne, who picked UNLV over Utah, Arizona, Oregon State and Arizona State, said the thought of leaving UNLV as its leader in touchdown catches never entered his mind when he signed with the Rebels.
“I definitely didn’t think about that,” he said. “I’m just blessed. I always had the quarterbacks who put it in the right spots. (The record) shouldn’t just be me. It should be the quarterbacks too.”
Payne said he hopes to play professionally but has not been invited yet to play in any postseason all-star games.
“Hopefully I get a (NFL) combine invite,” he said. “If not, then pro day. I’m definitely going to train for it.”
First, though, he has Saturday afternoon’s game at 18th-ranked TCU (9-2, 6-0), which has already clinched a share of the Mountain West title and is a 39-point betting favorite.
“It really hasn’t hit me yet,” Payne said of playing his final game. “I’m going to try and go out with a bang, and whenever I have a chance to make a play, make a play.”
REBEL NOTES: Hauck said it will may be a “game-time decision” on whether sophomore Caleb Herring (shoulder) or junior backup Sean Reilly starts at quarterback. However, he said Herring, knocked out of last Saturday’s loss to San Diego State, had made good progress during the week. “Night and day,” Hauck said … Former linebacker Bryce Saldi, who continues to recover from a serious brain injury suffered during a skateboarding accident on July 3, 2009, will be the team’s honorary captain and is expected to take part in the coin-tossing ceremony. Saldi, the son of former Dallas Cowboys tight end Jay Saldi, continues to rehab at his home in Texas. Saldi was awarded the Wiesner Award by the team before the season. “That will be a great deal,” Hauck said. “I know our seniors feel strongly about that.” … UNLV’s last game of the season figures to be a wet one. The weather forecast is for a high of 62 degrees with a 90 percent chance of rain and thunderstorms. Hauck planned to have his team do some wet-ball drills Thursday and Friday in preparation for the rainy conditions … UNLV has lost 15 consecutive road games dating back to an Oct. 24, 2009 win at New Mexico … TCU holds an 8-1 series edge over UNLV and has won all four contests in Fort Worth by an average of 30 points.