The historic season for the UNLV football program was most recently fueled by a come-from-behind win over Air Force to take sole possession of first place in the Mountain West West Division.
Fortune favored the bold as the Rebels beat the Falcons, 31-27, Saturday, Nov. 18 from Falcon Stadium in Colorado Springs, Colorado. This season, UNLV went 4-2 away from Allegiant Stadium.
“What a win huh?” head coach Barry Odom asked after the game. “What a great performance by our kids and the way they responded. We started the game extremely well and then they made some adjustments.”
Perched atop of the conference, the Rebels are 9-2 this season and are still on pace to tie the best season in program history. In 1984, the team went 11-2 with a win in the California Bowl. This year’s run is already the best mark in team history since joining the Mountain West in 1999.
Next week, UNLV will close its regular season schedule with a home date against San Jose State Saturday, Nov. 25 from Allegiant Stadium. A win in that game means a Mountain West regular season title for the Rebels, which would be a first for the program.
In order to get this latest win, UNLV needed to put forth a strong second half to salvage the victory after being down by double-digits late in the first half.
On the second play of the second half, freshman quarterback Jayden Maiava found junior tight end Kaleo Ballungay for 84 yards to set up a score on the ground. That start was eerily reminiscent of the start of the game when Maiava found junior receiver Ricky White III for 78 yards, this time scoring on the second of the game.
Offensive coordinator Brennan Marion let Maiava loose to the tune of 15-of-29 passing with 339 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Both interceptions for the Liberty product came in the first half.
UNLV’s running game sprouted when necessary and kept the Rebels ahead of schedule. Senior running back Donavyn Lester added a one-yard rushing score to his stat line on the heels of Ballungay’s second half 80-yard haul.
Fellow running back Vincent Davis Jr. broke a 50-yard touchdown later in the third quarter but it would be called back due to holding. That would’ve counted as the second touchdown of the day for the senior after punching one in from 12 yards out in the second quarter.
On that same drive, UNLV had another touchdown get called back due to an ineligible receiver downfield. Maiava and Ballungay would connect again soon after, this time in the end zone to give the Rebels their first lead since the game’s opening quarter.
“We knew if they had gotten another score, with the way the ball control was going, we were going to be in a tough spot,” Odom said. “You can never just think about big picture in that time, you have to think about ‘Okay, let’s get this play, let’s get a stop and move on to the next one.’”
Facing a 4th and 12 in the fourth quarter, punter Marshall Nichols completed a pass on a fake punt that resulted in a new set of downs. Nichols also had two punts downed inside the 10-yard line en route to the victory.
Later on the drive, kicker Jose Pizano would add another three points to the one-point lead to ensure Air Force would need a touchdown to regain the lead.
“What a big time throw,” Odom said. “Really the look wasn’t there. We’ve worked on a number of punts, we’ve worked on that one since Aug. 3 and even before that in spring ball. [Special teams coordinator James Shibest] has a playbook for fakes [and we] needed it at the right time.”
UNLV’s defense was tested time-and-time again but none more than the final drive where it stopped Air Force at the eight-yard line with a chance to take the lead.
“[Defensive coordinator Michael] Scherer and his staff did an unbelievable job,” Odom said. “And then the kids: the toughness, the resolve, the resiliency, overcoming some penalties, overcoming adversity. Staying in the arena, that’s what we’ve talked about.”
After going down 7-0 early in the game, the Falcons rattled off 24 straight points, ultimately going up by as many as 17 points. That 17-point deficit is the largest the Rebels have faced since Week 4 against Vanderbilt.
Additionally, Air Force rushed for over 340 yards with all three scores coming on the ground. However, UNLV pitched a second half shutout for the second straight week in order to secure the victory.
“The changes that Scherer made really on changing some of the pictures for the [Falcons’] quarterback and then holding off some things after the look of the call really helped us,” Odom said. “And then, there’s so many guys that made plays at crunch time.”