AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Say aloha to bowl eligibility, UNLV.
For the first time in 13 years, the Rebels have qualified for the football postseason.
They did it in a game that began with a temperature of 11 degrees and a wind chill of minus-7.
They did it behind Tim Cornett, who rushed for career highs of 220 yards and four touchdowns to give the Rebels a 41-21 victory over Air Force on Thursday night at Falcon Stadium.
“I just told the guys, hell may have just frozen over — the Rebels are bowl eligible,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said. “I’m really excited for our guys. I’ve done this for a while, and I’ve had the chance to coach in bowl games and in the postseason and all that. I’m just really excited for our kids that they’re going to get a chance to experience that.”
The Rebels (6-5, 4-3 Mountain West) won’t play in a bowl for sure, but the math is in their favor to find a spot. They could find themselves in one of five bowls with Mountain West tie-ins. The Las Vegas Bowl, which owns the first selection of the Mountain West, is the one exception.
Whether that means spending Christmas Eve in Hawaii, the day after Christmas in San Diego or in some other location probably won’t be known until Dec. 8.
UNLV would be happy to go anywhere after having to wait since the 2000 Las Vegas Bowl, a game the Rebels beat Arkansas 31-14, to participate in the postseason. This also is the first time the Rebels have hit six victories in a season since going 6-6 in 2003.
“It’s hard to put into words,” UNLV quarterback Caleb Herring said. “It means the world to us. This bowl has been our (goal) since we reported for camp back in August. It’s an emotional high right now.”
The Rebels can thank Cornett for helping put them in position to play in the postseason. He blew past his previous career high of 179 yards set Sept. 28 at New Mexico.
“He had a couple of runs where he bailed us out, where he made some guys miss in the hole and made something out of nothing,” Hauck said. “Obviously, we needed every one of them.”
Cornett also reached 1,000 yards rushing for the season, joining Mike Thomas in 1973 and 1974 as the only Rebels to hit that mark twice. Devante Davis, who caught six passes for 75 yards, crossed the 1,000-yard mark in receiving, making them the first UNLV rushing and receiving duo to hit that figure in a season.
Cornett, who ran 36 times, keyed a 330-yard rushing effort by UNLV, beating out run-based Air Force’s 228 yards.
“We came in with a plan that we weren’t going to be stopped,” Cornett said. “The bowl game was within reach, and we had to come out here and get it.”
Herring, wearing a glove on his throwing hand for the first time, helped open up the running game by completing 15 of 18 passes for 141 yards. He also rushed for two touchdowns and 56 yards.
“It’s all about mental toughness,” Herring said of throwing in the cold. “You can’t let it be a distraction. You’ve got to be able to come out and perform regardless of the circumstances.”
The Rebels didn’t look as if they would have any problem against Air Force (2-9, 0-7) when they bolted out to a 27-0 lead with 9:47 left in the second quarter.
But then Hauck ordered an onside kick because the wind was blowing against UNLV, but the ball went out of bounds. The Falcons turned that into a quick seven points to grab momentum, eventually closing to within 33-21 with 5:18 left in the third quarter.
UNLV also blew two chances to re-establish control. The Rebels took more than six minutes off the clock to open the second half, but Nolan Kohorst missed a 29-yard field goal. In the fourth quarter, UNLV went all the way to Air Force’s 1-yard line, but Shaquille Murray-Lawrence lost a fumble in the end zone.
But the Rebels also made the plays they had to.
Their defense forced consecutive three-and-outs when Air Force threatened to get within a possession, and then later used pressure to create a turnover on downs.
“Those stops were huge,” Hauck said.
Then it was Cornett, appropriately, putting the clincher on it with a 46-yard touchdown run with 2:03 left.
That left the Rebels, on a bitterly cold night, thinking about destinations such as Hawaii or San Diego.
“It hasn’t hit me yet,” Cornett said. “I feel like later on, I won’t be able to sleep.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.