UNLV stood 16 yards and four downs from qualifying for a bowl for the first time in 13 seasons.
One pass to the end zone. Then another. And another. And yet one last one.
The last three passes had virtually no chance of landing in the hands of a Rebels wide receiver.
It was that kind of night for UNLV, a 28-24 loss Saturday to Utah State full of questionable decisions and missed opportunities that will be long remembered should the Rebels fail in their final two chances to qualify for the postseason.
Utah State wide receiver Bruce Natson scored the winning touchdown on a 12-yard run from the wildcat formation with 3:56 left.
The Rebels (5-5, 3-3 Mountain West) take a week off before playing at Air Force on Nov. 21. They finish the regular season Nov. 30 at home against San Diego State.
Maybe they will beat at least one of those opponents, and Saturday’s memory won’t linger so long.
But if UNLV falls short in those final two games, the thoughts of what took place against Utah State (6-4, 5-1) at Sam Boyd Stadium will be difficult to get over.
The Rebels came close, driving all the way from their 18-yard line, down four points against a blitzing Aggies defense that twice sacked quarterback Caleb Herring on the series.
And both times Herring responded with key completions, eventually taking the Rebels to Utah State’s 16 with 35 seconds left and three timeouts still in hand.
The first pass came the closest to scoring, but Utah State cornerback Nevin Lawson made a terrific play to break up the throw intended for Marcus Sullivan. The other three passes were thrown out of the end zone, including the final one that was way over Devante Davis’ head.
“They were giving us a decent dose of pressure,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said. “We like our guys on those matchups down the field. We knew that there would be a substantial amount of those shots that we would take in the game in the man coverage.
“The fourth-down play, we were trying to throw to the slot (receiver) underneath on that way, and he got covered. I’m not sure if it was legal or not; I’ll have to see the film.”
Hauck defended the play-calling, as well as his own decision midway through the second quarter to fake a field goal from the 8, saying based on what coaches saw on video, it had about an excellent chance to succeed.
But the Rebels could’ve used the three points in the final seconds, and instead of taking shots at the end zone, might have been in position to send out kicker Nolan Kohorst for his second game-winning field goal of the season.
Hauck said he didn’t regret the decision, saying “it was (an) eight out of 10” possibility.
UNLV also had an excellent chance to establish a two-possession lead early in the second half. The Rebels led 17-14 at halftime, just the second time they were ahead at the break this season.
On the first drive of the second half, they drove to the Aggies’ 1, where Tim Cornett — who rushed for 115 yards and a touchdown — was stuffed for a 4-yard loss. Then on third down, Herring threw over the middle into the end zone, and was intercepted by Lawson.
Get points there, even if it’s just a field goal, and the end-of-game dynamic probably is dramatically different.
“That’s all speculation,” Hauck said. “Wish we had gotten the points, though.”
Herring struggled against the Aggies’ blitz, completing 17 of 39 passes for 252 yards, though with two touchdowns. It was the first time this season he completed less than 50 percent of his passes.
His counterpart, Utah State’s Darell Garretson, completed 16 of 28 passes for 288 yards and a touchdown, but was sacked four times.
UNLV did a solid job defending the Aggies’ running game, holding it to 153 yards, 50 yards below the season average.
But the Rebels couldn’t get the Aggies off the field on third downs. Utah State converted 10 of 17, including all three on the winning drive.
This is a loss that could linger.
Maybe having a week off helps.
“I think it does,” Hauck said. “I think both teams are a little bit banged up. It was quite physical. It will be good to have those extra days this week, for sure.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.