UNLV football:

Rebels earn their breaks and celebrate hard-fought 38-35 victory against Air Force

UNLV plays arguably the best half of the Bobby Hauck era and holds off the Falcons for its first victory of the 2012 season

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Stephen Sylvanie

UNLV football players celebrate their first victory of the season, a 38-35 win over Air Force at Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday night.

UNLV Downs Air Force

UNLV football players celebrate their first victory of the season, a 38-35 win over Air Force at Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday night. Launch slideshow »

UNLV snags first win

KSNV coverage of UNLV's victory against Air Force, Sept. 22, 2012.

The Rebels sprinted and they jumped, possibly faster and higher than any of them had in the game that just ended. Victory can do that to a man.

At midfield of a mostly empty Sam Boyd Stadium that came alive with the home team in the second half Saturday night, UNLV celebrated its first victory of the season, a 38-35 nail-biter against Air Force (1-2). The Rebels (1-3) took this one with a dominant final 30 minutes of football, easily the best half they’ve played this year and maybe the best of the Bobby Hauck era.

The defensive players, who looked so overmatched early against the Falcons, stood at the center of it all when time expired and basked in a moment they completely earned.

“Best feeling in the world,” linebacker Tani Maka said.

Freshman quarterback Nick Sherry has his first career victory, an honor he fought for with 250 yards on 23-of-32 passing and two crucial runs in the fourth quarter. The first set up his lone touchdown — the only throwing score by either team — that put UNLV ahead 38-28, and the other was a gutsy fourth-down sneak that burned precious seconds off the clock.

“When that clock ran to zero, we all just went crazy on the sidelines,” Sherry said. “We’ve been fighting so hard these last three weeks and to come so close but fall short three times really takes a toll on you. To come out here and finally get ours …”

He trailed off and started talking about next week and taking this momentum on the road at Utah State, because Saturday night wasn’t the goal. It was a step in the journey, the first one that has made the destination look like it’s actually worth driving toward.

“I’m not sure that anyone outside of our complex was confident that we could be a good football team, that we could win tonight or maybe win a game this year,” Hauck said. “But the guys within have a lot of confidence, and they’re the ones that have to play and they’re the ones that matter.”

UNLV’s offense was basically dialed in all night. Tim Cornett and Bradley Randle combined for only 40 yards at halftime, but each had a touchdown and Sherry had overcome a bad interception with 184 yards. The problem was they needed the defense to get some stops in order to keep pace.

Air Force had six offensive possessions in the first half; two ended in failed fourth-down conversions, the other four were touchdowns. The last one of those was a two-play, 65-yard drive that put the Falcons up 28-17 and looked like it could be a back-breaker right before halftime.

That still looked like the case as UNLV’s offense went three-and-out to start the second half. Fans had seen this play out before and it never ended well.

What made this different was that the ball eventually bounced, literally, UNLV’s way. Air Force’s first drive of the second half ended when Kenny Brown forced a fumble that popped high into the air and fell like an apple from a tree into Maka’s waiting arms.

“It gives us the momentum,” Maka said of the play. “Guys are positive; everybody’s fired up.”

Two plays later Cornett broke down the sideline for a 76-yard gain that ended when he got caught from behind at the 2-yard line. Cornett said he knows he’ll get teased about that play, which wouldn't happen if this game went the way of the three weeks before it.

Randle finished the drive with a touchdown run and added a third score on the next drive to put UNLV ahead for good.

“I say all the time ‘Have fun and gotta make memories,’ ” Randle said. “I’m pretty sure we did that tonight.”

Cornett finished with 114 yards, averaging 6.7 yards per carry, and Randle barreled for 66 yards with his three scores, the most since Cornett tallied four against Wyoming in 2010.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. Before Randle’s third score, a botched Air Force punt attempt turned into a fourth-down conversion that could have deflated the defense. But it didn’t. Once the Rebels caught up to the Falcons’ speed on the perimeter, they shut down the triple-option like few teams have been able to do.

Air Force’s only score in the second half was on a 35-yard drive aided by 30 yards of UNLV penalties (a pair of personal fouls on a kickoff). That, like the score right before halftime, could have been enough to signal another disappointment was in store. Hauck’s decision during the ensuing drive to go for it on fourth-and-1 at his own 34 with 3:10 on the clock suggested otherwise.

“In my head I was saying you’ve got to punt this, but I told everybody we’re going for it, so I was calling myself an idiot,” Hauck said. “… Didn’t believe in giving them another chance if we could help it.”

The previous play had ended UNLV’s streak of seven consecutive third-down conversions, but with the offensive line getting a great pus,h the Rebels easily made it 1-for-1 on fourth downs with Sherry’s three-yard dive up the middle.

Air Force got the ball back with 51 seconds left and desperation on the agenda. UNLV is familiar with that situation and it was nice to be on the other side for a change. The defense made one final stop and it was over.

“We’re not like the team that would get pushed over last year,” Maka said.

Hauck has said repeatedly that this team is different. There were signs, sure, but now he finally has some proof to back it up.

“When we can string some wins together, it will be fun to be around,” Hauck said.

That’s asking a lot with upcoming games at Utah State, at Louisiana Tech and home against UNR. But it had to start somewhere.

That somewhere was midfield Saturday night with no time on the clock and smiles on a lot of faces.

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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  1. Well done, gentlemen. Well done.

  2. This was the one game that I gave us "zero" chance on! Thought we would loose by at least 20 pts.

    I hope we can build on this big win as we prepare for the road.

    Sherry is a stud! He gets better each game. The running backs are working hard and not going down on the first tackle. Scoggins did great considering it was his first game. And the defense looked great going after the option!

    Still, we make stupid penalties. The roughing call that gave AF their last touchdown had me going nuts. I was just waiting for another stupid penalty when they got last possession. Thank goodness they ran out of time!

    Going for it on fourth down trying to run out the clock took a lot of guts! Glad to see the team came together and had a great performance overall! They still have to learn to control their emotions after the play is over. Too bad this wasn't an ESPN game!

  3. Obviously, UNLV team has improved a lot . This is a young team and will be kept improving. Congratulation to Coach staff and players. They do not give up.

  4. ok so for next week at Utah State, Rebels need to get their secondary in shape-seems to be the weak link on the team right now. Of course you need a good pass rush to help out the secondary. Defensive ends need to step up. Wanna see Boyd step up-was recruited by USC,wanna see what the fuss was about him. But I do know the effort will be there with this team.

  5. Good win for the Rebels.. Hopefully they can carry the swagger into the game next week and play with some passion on the road. It was nice to see the players and the coaching staff finally get one, as they had both been working so hard.