Sunday, Sept. 18, 2011 | 2 a.m.
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A week after one of the most lopsided losses in program history, the Rebels flipped the script on a Hawaii team that was favored by nearly three touchdowns and pulled off a stunning 40-20 upset in their home opener at Sam Boyd Stadium.
It couldn't have possibly been more opposite from what played out a week ago in a 59-7 thumping at Washington State. The defense was nothing shy of forceful and, at times, simply dominant. They generated a pass rush, handed out big hits, didn't miss assignments and forced turnovers. On offense, the line was again creating consistent push, setting the table for a strong run game that then allowed sophomore quarterback Caleb Herring to make big plays with his arm.
In other words, it was hardly what anyone outside of the program expected, but just what UNLV (1-2) needed.
"Initially, we were lower than low a week ago, and we should have been," Rebels coach Bobby Hauck said. "I'm excited for our team. I'm happy that our guys kind of fought back from the abyss last week. They went to work, came out, played extremely well and we beat a good football team."
Of the 21,248 people in the stands, about half were UNLV fans. And almost every single one of them would have accepted simply a competitive effort from the Rebels after all signs a week ago pointed to this being another building year in the difficult transition into Hauck's tenure.
The tone was set right away. In the first quarter alone, UNLV created a turnover on special teams, and the same defense that allowed five touchdowns a week ago before forcing Washington State to punt for the first time induced two Hawaii punts.
The momentum, though, really began to build with two minutes left in the opening stanza, when sophomore tailback Tim Cornett took a handoff and shot off of the left tackle, then flat-out ran away from three Hawaii defenders en route to an 80-yard score, giving UNLV a shocking 10-0 lead and a belief that it could legitimately pull this off.
Hawaii found itself still down 10 at the half, but UNLV immediately seized momentum out of the locker room when the Warriors fumbled away the second-half kickoff and scored 10 seconds later. Phillip Payne made a sensational catch on a 33-yard pass play, in which he snatched the ball over two Hawaii defenders at the goal line.
The rest of the night was pretty much a blur.
Offensively, Herring had an outstanding bounce-back effort, going 17-of-29 for 178 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. It was known going into this game that to be successful, getting Payne involved in the offense again would be key. In turn, Payne caught seven passes for 98 yards and two scores, giving him five touchdowns in three career games against Hawaii.
On the ground, behind an offensive line that blew Hawaii's strong defensive front off of the ball on almost every snap, Cornett and fellow sophomore Bradley Randle combined for 184 yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries.
But the defensive performance was something else.
After giving up 1,109 yards of total offense in their first two games, the front seven feasted on a Hawaii run game that has struggled all year. The Rebels allowed only six yards on the ground, which is the third fewest given up in a game in program history.
Hawaii senior quarterback Bryant Moniz completed 20 of 36 passes for 233 yards and two scores, but he coughed up a costly fumble early in the second half and was pressured constantly and made regularly uncomfortable by a UNLV defense that was as active as it has been at any point under Hauck and his staff.
"From watching film against Washington and other teams, they had him rattled, and we knew if we had pressure on him how he'd react," said senior defensive end Matt Kravetz, who had a hand in one of UNLV's three sacks. "We jumped on him and it all went from there.
"Our secondary had a tremendous night and that's what helped the line get a lot of pressure, some sacks, tackles (for loss), and they just did a great job tonight coming off of last week."
UNLV forced four turnovers in all, had eight tackles for loss and played with a swagger on the defensive side of the ball that was not even close to being seen in the first two games.
How successful the Rebels are moving forward from Saturday's shocker doesn't necessarily depend on them producing those exact numbers each week on defense, but simply playing the same brand of assignment-sound football. When that happens, so do the turnovers and big, momentum-changing plays.
If they can keep it up, the schedule moving forward in what seven days ago appeared to be a dead season lays out pretty favorably.
Next Saturday, UNLV will host Football Championship Subdivision foe Southern Utah, which is 2-1 and averaging 36 points per game but has yet to take on a Football Bowl Subdivision opponent.
After that comes a bye week, then a trip up north to face rival Nevada-Reno. The Wolf Pack is enduring struggles of its own in the post-Colin Kaepernick Era. Chris Ault's club barely escaped San Jose State with a 17-14 victory earlier on Saturday and was thoroughly punished a week ago at Oregon.
It's not like anyone will be necessarily talking about UNLV rebounding now to win six games and securing its first postseason berth since 2000 following just one win, but it was at least a change to see signs of life just a week removed from one of the darkest Saturday's in the program's recent history.
As Hauck exited the field as fired up as can be, doling out hugs to Athletic Director Jim Livengood and his teenage daughter, among others, one mantra was both yelled by him and at him: "Build off of this."
"There's a lot of football teams that would have cashed their chips in after what happened last week," he said. "We went on the road, played two good BCS conference teams, got whipped, game back here and whipped a good team. So I'm fired up for our guys."
UNLV has now defeated Hawaii in four of the last five meetings between the two at Sam Boyd Stadium. Next season, Hawaii joins the Mountain West for football only ... Payne's two touchdown catches make him now second on UNLV's career TD reception list with 22. He's two behind Henry Bailey, who had 24 from 1991-94. Payne also now has 1,916 career receiving yards, which ranks 10th in program history ... Nolan Kohorst's 40-yard field goal in the first quarter marked the first time in 16 games under Bobby Hauck in which the Rebels have scored first. Kohorst's 50-yarder in the third quarter marked a new career best for the sophomore from Green Valley High ... Tim Cornett's 80-yard TD scamper was the longest by a Rebel since Darin Brightmon's 89-yarder vs. New Mexico State on Sept. 23, 1989. Cornett finished with 106 yards on 11 carries, giving him his first career 100-yard game.