UNLV football:

Rebels don’t execute well enough to win on offense, defense or special teams

The game was close through 3 quarters but only the Mean Green made plays to pull away in the Heart of Dallas Bowl

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV punt returner Keith Whitely nearly fumbles the ball while North Texas defensive back Zed Evans comes in for the tackle during the Heart of Dallas Bowl Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. North Texas won 36-14.

Heart of Dallas Bowl

UNLV quarterback Caleb Herring walks off the field after failing to convert on fourth down late in the fourth quarter against North Texas during the Heart of Dallas Bowl Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. North Texas won 36-14. Launch slideshow »

At Tuesday’s press conference leading up to the Heart of Dallas Bowl at Cotton Bowl Stadium, North Texas coach Dan McCarney called his friend and UNLV coach Bobby Hauck one of the best special teams coordinators in the country. Based on UNLV’s history, many people would respectfully disagree.

While no one play can win or lose a 22-point game — and the Rebels’ third-down defense wasn’t good enough to beat anybody — it was a special teams blunder that stymied the only momentum UNLV ever had in a 36-14 loss to the Mean Green.

UNLV’s defense stopped North Texas on its first drive, and after getting pinned down at his own 5-yard line, Rebels senior quarterback Caleb Herring led a 95-yard touchdown drive for a 7-0 lead.

All season the Rebels’ strength was their offense and UNT’s strength was its defense, so to gain such a decisive advantage early seemed to be a sign of more big things to come from UNLV. Especially when UNLV’s defense responded with a quick three-and-out.

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UNLV punt returner Keith Whitley stands by after North Texas recovered a punt he fumbled during the Heart of Dallas Bowl Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2014 at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. North Texas won 36-14.

So Herring and the offense were poised to get the ball back only a few minutes after traveling nearly the entire field for a score. Then freshman punt returner Keith Whitely dropped muffed the punt at the 42-yard line, where the Mean Green took over and then tied the game a few plays later.

Whitely nearly fumbled a second punt later in the game before getting pulled and multiple punts and kicks left North Texas in good field position. All that combined with Nolan Kohorst’s miss on his only field-goal attempt and it was a rough day overall for UNLV’s special teams.

Things weren’t much better for the Rebels’ defense, at least when it came to third-down conversions in the second half.

After holding North Texas to 1-for-6 on third downs in the first half, the Mean Green converted their first eight over consecutive touchdown drives in the second half. That included a 17-yard gain on third-and-16.

“It messes with you,” said senior defensive tackle Taylor Gaston. “It’s kind of like that thorn in your side. When you know you should have had a better play or series.”

Senior linebacker Tim Hasson said several times the Rebels just failed to execute. They forced third downs and on many of them were in the right place, but on those crucial plays the Mean Green found ways to shed tackles.

Offensively, nothing looked the same after that 95-yard drive. Herring started seeing more defenders in his face and was often throwing sidearm. After stating the game 8-for-8 he finished 22-of-41 with two touchdowns, an interception and a season-high five sacks.

Herring also had more rushing attempts than senior running back Tim Cornett. The school’s all-time leading rusher ended his career with 12 carries for 33 yards.

All in all, this was not the performance the Rebels were looking for in their first bowl game since 2000. It was tied at 7 at halftime and it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that the Rebels’ defense appeared tired and the Mean Green piled up the points.

Instead of a trophy, the Rebels will return to Las Vegas with a learning experience they hope serves as a building block for the future.

“We all wish we would have won it. We didn’t, but we still need to be happy about the season we had,” Hasson said. “I mean, we got this team headed in the right direction and that’s something to be proud about.”

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

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