Cornett, fittingly, steps up to ice UNLV win


AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo.

How appropriate. How fitting.

How, well, Tim Cornett.

That the UNLV football team on Thursday night became bowl eligible for the first time since 2000 is a testament to many things: playing well in extreme weather conditions, overcoming more special teams lunacy, conquering the adversity that was produced from it.

Mostly, the Rebels relied on a senior running back who has given every ounce of himself to the program as one who would lead them into such foreign territory as a possible postseason game.

UNLV beat Air Force 41-21 before no more than 8,000 at freezing Falcon Stadium, and 4,000 of those were cadets who are instructed to be present, no matter how bad the home team is during a particular season or how far the temperature might drop on a certain evening.

It was 11 degrees with a minus-7 wind chill at kickoff.

The cadets moved only to do pushups following Air Force scores.

It was even colder when Cornett went 46 yards with 2:03 remaining to, quite appropriately, ice one of the most significant victories in UNLV history.

With it, the Rebels are eligible to be selected to one of six bowls contracted to invite Mountain West teams.

“UNLV earned the opportunity to be a bowl team,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said. “Look throughout the year, and they could have had a win or two more. They were the better team. We salute them.”

It’s not official for the Rebels. Not yet. Games need to be played. More than six conference teams have an ability to become bowl eligible. Crazy things could happen.

But odds favor — heavily — that next Saturday’s home finale against San Diego State won’t be UNLV’s final game of 2013.

“It hasn’t hit me yet,” Cornett said. “Maybe it will when we get back home and I’m sitting around thinking about it. This is what Coach Hauck talked to me about during the recruiting process — building a program, having patience, watching things pay off with a bowl game.”

It, more than anything, defines progress in a program that has lost for so many years. Bowl games usually don’t earn a university much money, and there’s no telling how many — or few — UNLV fans might travel over the holidays to places such as Hawaii or Boise or San Diego or Fort Worth or Albuquerque, but it’s a home run for perception’s sake.

“I just told our guys that hell may have just frozen over,” Hauck said. “The Rebels are bowl eligible … Great stuff, man. I’m really excited for our guys. I’ve done this for a while and have had a chance to coach in bowl games, and I’m really excited for our kids that they’re going to get the chance to experience that.”

In the wacky world that has been Hauck as his own special teams coordinator, you knew history would not be achieved without ample weirdness.

You knew bowl eligibility would not be secured until the Rebels did something crazy like attempt an onside kick when leading 27-0 in the second quarter of a game they had complete control of to that point.

I am incredibly disappointed the Rebels didn’t also pooch punt on first-and-10 from inside Air Force territory or at least call for a triple option on a slippery field when receiving the second-half kickoff.

Hauck must be losing his touch for the bizarre.

Air Force outscored UNLV 21-14 after the onside-kick-from-hell went out of bounds and made things more interesting than anyone on the visitor’s sideline would have preferred, but a UNLV offense that outgained the country’s 10th-rated rushing attack 330-228 on the ground and a defense that was at its best in the fourth quarter ultimately secured a sixth win.

And then there was Cornett.

He finished with 36 carries for a career-best 220 yards and four touchdowns, the school’s all-time leading rusher joining Mike Thomas as the only two players to have multiple 1,000-yard seasons at UNLV.

Today is a good day for Cornett and quarterback Caleb Herring and all other UNLV seniors, kids who have endured so much losing, so many down times and defeat, so many negative results.

Kids who deserve something good to happen for them, who will covet and embrace and cherish every moment of a bowl setting.

“I never doubted our coaches could get us to this point,” Cornett said. “I was like a lot of guys who needed to learn and grow and mature, to show that patience. We all needed to get better.

“This feels so good. I won’t be able to sleep.”

Hell hasn’t frozen over, but Falcon Stadium might have.

And in the process, UNLV football took a giant step forward in what defines a competitive college football program.

UNLV and a bowl game …

In recent times, you have sworn such a thought was the result of brain freeze.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.