DALLAS — UNLV became the first college football team to score in 2014, and all looked bright for the Rebels in the opening minutes of the Heart of Dallas Bowl.
That, as it turned out, would be as good as it got on the first day of the new year.
UNLV’s offense struggled the rest of the game Wednesday, and its defense tired as it stayed on the field too long.
North Texas broke open a tie game at halftime to score four touchdowns and hand UNLV a 36-14 loss before an announced crowd of 38,380 at Cotton Bowl Stadium.
This wasn’t the end to the season the Rebels (7-6) envisioned, but they were at least playing. They made their first bowl appearance and finished with their first winning season since 2000, though the Rebels took their first bowl loss. They were 3-0 in bowls.
What happened in this game, however, wasn’t going to change how the season will be remembered.
UNLV junior wide receiver Devante Davis, who caught 10 passes for 96 yards against North Texas (9-4), became emotional as he discussed the season, with tears streaming down his cheeks.
“What sticks out to me is the work we put in the offseason, and it showed during the season, and it turned the season around,” Davis said. “The thing that sticks out the most is the leadership the seniors took upon themselves in the offseason to make sure we could come out and win games this year.”
Davis’ emotions showed how badly UNLV wanted to close its season with a victory. The Rebels instead left with their most one-sided loss since a 38-14 defeat at Fresno State on Oct. 19.
The game began well for the Rebels when they went 95 yards on their opening drive, taking a 7-0 lead on Caleb Herring’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Marcus Sullivan.
Then, after they forced a three-and-out, came the first indication this wouldn’t be the Rebels’ day. Keith Whitely muffed a punt, and North Texas’ Zed Evans recovered at UNLV’s 42-yard line.
The Mean Green took advantage of the miscue to tie the score on Antoinne Jimmerson’s 1-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter, and the score remained 7-7 going into halftime.
North Texas took over in the second half, beginning with a third-quarter drive when UNLV couldn’t get its defense off the field. The Mean Green went 4-for-4 on third downs, converting one from 16 yards, and took the lead for good on Derek Thompson’s 7-yard scoring pass to tight end Drew Miller.
Then when UNLV went three-and-out on the offensive end, its defense had to go right back on the field. North Texas went 74 yards and scored on the first play of the fourth quarter on wide receiver Brelan Chancellor’s 3-yard touchdown run to assert full control.
The Mean Green added two more touchdowns in the quarter. They also controlled the ball for 35 minutes, 16 seconds, including 19:18 in the second half.
“We started wearing them out,” North Texas coach Dan McCarney said. “This is a physical program. It’s based on physicality. It’s based on finishing.”
Thompson completed 21 of 30 passes for 256 yards and two touchdowns, and was named the game’s Most Valuable Player. Chancellor caught six passes for 74 yards and rushed for 47.
Herring completed his first eight passes but finished 22 of 41 for 196 yards and two touchdowns. He and Tim Cornett each rushed for 33 yards.
This was the final college game for both players, a duo who helped put UNLV into a bowl.
Herring began the year on the bench, but threw 24 touchdown passes this season, just one off the school record. Cornett rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the second season in a row and became the Rebels’ all-time leading rusher with 3,733 yards.
“I’m grateful for the time I’ve had here,” Herring said. “Obviously, looking back on my years here, I’ve become a better football player and a better man because of the things I’ve been able to do here. I would have liked to go out on a bit of a sweeter taste, but the time here I’ve had is nothing short of amazing, and I’m just proud to be a Rebel.”
Fourth-year UNLV coach Bobby Hauck hopes this season serves as a catalyst in coming years.
“I told (the players) I was proud of them and in particular our seniors for having turned the ship around,” Hauck said. “We were not good when we all came together a few years ago. I told them I was proud of them and looking forward to everybody being back in January so we could start on next season.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.