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Graney: Progress hurts, as UNLV outclassed in title game loss

The run to a Mountain West championship football game ended in a sea of blue, a victorious team that played like it had been to this moment on seven such occasions.

There would be no comeback for UNLV. No late-game rally. The other guys were too good.

Hey. Progress hurts.

UNLV’s march to within 60 minutes of lifting a trophy ended in a 44-20 loss to Boise State on Saturday at Allegiant Stadium.

It was played before 31,473, the largest such gathering in the event’s history. And what each soul witnessed was a team in UNLV that appeared very much like it was competing in its first Mountain West title matchup.

Just couldn’t make enough plays. Just couldn’t get near enough stops. Just couldn’t follow one positive with another.

“I hate that we came up short, but we’re going to be back in this arena,” UNLV coach Barry Odom said. “This is the standard. It will be one of our goals every single year, to be in this championship game.”

His first year as coach will now mean bringing a 9-4 team to the school’s first bowl since 2013, a game and destination to be determined Sunday.

Such a significant step was overshadowed for an afternoon by a Boise State team that had its way with UNLV, that produced one chunk play after another to grab a lead and run away.

This isn’t the best Broncos side Mountain West opponents have seen over the years, but it’s plenty capable.

So many lessons to be learned for UNLV.

Boise’s been there

Redshirt freshman quarterback Jayden Maiava looked every bit his youth, accounting for three turnovers and never really getting into the type of rhythm needed to keep up on the scoreboard. It was also the second-lowest rushing output (81 yards) of the season for UNLV. Nothing got going.

UNLV’s defense also lost contain far too often, allowing 527 total yards, including 301 on the ground. Boise State had six plays over 30 yards, including ones of 50, 57 and 70. Too good.

Boise State just played with more confidence, at a swifter pace on both sides of the ball.

It looked far more the part of a champion. The moment wasn’t too big for Boise State. Been here, done this a lot.

“Our focus was to win this game — that’s all we cared about,” UNLV junior linebacker Jackson Woodard said. “We’re looking at a bowl game and are excited, but we wanted this one. We won enough games to get to a championship but didn’t win once we were there. I think we have the best coaches in the country, and by following them, we’ll be in good hands.”

The idea is that you have to sometimes make a final and lose to really learn how to win such a game. Maybe. And what Odom has done is position UNLV for future runs at the trophy.

The Rebels have developed a base of success. Their recruiting is said to be at or near the top of the conference right now. UNLV players expect to win and are devastated when they don’t. A culture has been built.

“There’s value in working hard,” Odom said. “You can still outwork people. The mental toughness and resolve we’ve had all season — nothing was handed to us or given to us. We earned a lot of what we got.

“It’s the understanding of staying in the fight and the arena. There’s plenty of space in Las Vegas to have an elite college football team. We talked about hope, vision and belief. Now, there’s validation for all of it.”

Giving hope

They lifted a program from the stain of so many losing years. Gave those who follow UNLV hope of even better days to come.

They also played Saturday like a team competing in its first Mountain West championship game.

They also played and lost to one that captured its fifth such title.

Hey. Progress hurts.

Ed Graney, a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing, can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on X.

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