Saturday, Sept. 28, 2013 | 10:35 p.m.
Bobby Hauck emerged from a victorious road locker room with his left hand gripped tightly around UNLV’s game ball. No one can say if this was normal because at UNLV, the Rebels' coach never made that walk before.
The plane ride, too, would be a new experience for almost everyone on it. Hauck likely didn’t loosen his grip until the wheels left the ground or maybe even until the team touched down safely back in Las Vegas after a 56-42 victory against New Mexico (1-3, 0-1) on Saturday night at University Stadium.
That trip was one the Rebels (3-2, 1-0) have been dreaming about for years, going all the way back to their last road victory, in 2009, also at New Mexico. Twenty-three quiet trips home followed, and you can bet no one would get any sleep this time.
“We’ll probably be talking real loud and shaking,” said junior receiver Devante Davis. “Well, maybe not shaking.”
Fifth-year senior quarterback Caleb Herring disagreed.
“There might be some turbulence, and not the wind,” said Herring, one of the few players on the roster for UNLV’s last road victory. “It’s going to be the UNLV Rebels up there rocking it.”
Herring connected with Davis on a seven-yard corner route in the back right of the end zone for the decisive score with 4:46 to play. That capped a 15-play, 80-yard drive that chewed up nearly seven minutes of clock and sent UNLV to its third straight victory for the first time since 2003.
It was a nearly perfect drive, the kind good teams come up with in game-winning situations. UNLV not only needed to score but it had to leave New Mexico as little time as possible to respond.
“We knew as an offense that we had to help our defense,” senior running back Tim Cornett said, “and doing that the most meant not only scoring but keeping their offense off the field. That’s what the play-calling was for.”
Eight of UNLV’s 15 plays on the drive were rushes. That number may have been higher had Ron Scoggins’ holding penalty not negated a first-down run. That was UNLV’s only penalty of the game and snapped a streak of nine whole quarters without a charged penalty.
Herring shook off the setback and moved UNLV across the 50-yard line on third-and-11 with a 22-yard pass to Marcus Sullivan, who made a dazzling 2013 debut with 144 total offensive yards and a score.
“I saw he was in one-on-one coverage,” Herring said, “ and he won.”
Herring finished 24-of-34 with 293 yards and four touchdowns, three of them to Davis, who caught 10 passes for 164 yards.
Of course, boiling this game all down to that one drive is like telling someone how great the most recent episode of “Breaking Bad” was while ignoring the previous 60. There’s no way to describe this game other than to say it was as bizarre, surreal and confounding as any game most of the 24,000 in attendance or in the press box had ever seen.
The Lobos opened a 14-0 lead that quickly turned into a remarkable shootout. The game went over its total — 54 — with more than 12 minutes to play in the second quarter.
Of the 10 first-half scoring drives, all of them touchdowns, three took less than a minute and only one went over 3:04. New Mexico amassed 400 first-half rushing yards yet the teams went into halftime tied at 35.
How the game went from that to a relative grind that saw the Lobos only score seven over the final 30 minutes is a credit to UNLV’s defense.
“Our assistant coaches did an awesome job at halftime,” Hauck said, “on the defensive side in particular.”
The Lobos, Hauck said, came out with a lot of different sets out of its triple option package the Rebels hadn’t seen before. That set up multiple two-on-one situations on the outside, of which New Mexico won a majority.
The Rebels countered with different defensive fronts, different formations and a pressure they rarely call. That, plus more accountability amongst the players, worked.
“Once everyone started doing what they’re supposed to do, it was much more difficult for New Mexico to move the ball,” said junior cornerback Kenneth Penny.
New Mexico tallied just 140 second-half yards. A sack on the Lobos’ last offensive possession actually dropped their rushing total from 505 yards to 497.
Strange when 497 rushing yards allowed is considered a victory, but that’s the kind of night it was for UNLV.
Like “Breaking Bad”, which has one more episode Sunday, the Rebels had one more crucial drive with just more than three minutes to play. Fans have seen this go wrong many times before so they couldn’t be blamed for feeling uneasy.
Cornett made sure it was a happy ending. Instead of running out the clock, Cornett broke open on the first play and ended the road streak with a 75-yard touchdown. He finished with 179 yards and three scores on 25 carries, more than making up for the first lost fumble in his career.
Shortly after that came the shower Hauck’s players doused him with on the sidelines and the game ball they handed him in the locker room. There’s so much new for the Rebels to process heading into a bye week before they host Hawaii that it’s unclear how they’ll handle it all.
What they knew for certain after this game was that they were going to soak this in and enjoy it. This feeling doesn’t come around often and the Rebels probably didn’t even need engines they were flying so high.
“It’s going to feel so good,” Cornett said. “It’s a flight I’ve never been on.”