They boarded a flight from here late Saturday afternoon with a heavy dose of frustration sticking inside their collective guts. They undoubtedly made the short trip to Las Vegas replaying every second of what was a massive opportunity lost in an ocean of mistakes. They will insist a better outcome was merited.
“We had our chances to win that game,” UNLV football coach Mike Sanford said. “We should have won this game.”
One problem: They didn’t deserve to.
The Fremont Cannon was guarded for most of the day as if more valuable than the Hope Diamond, which UNR coach Chris Ault in his own obsessed way might propose it to be.
It remains blue today because Ault’s team was by far the better one when winning plays were required, because the Wolf Pack annually is as good as he coaches it to be, and he is as capable during a game as he is a control freak before and after one.
Rivalry games often are won by those who better manage emotions and maintain focus, neither of which UNLV did in losing 27-20. For as controlled as the Rebels were in routing Utah last week, they at times appeared just as bewildered here.
The pain of such losses should begin to sting more for UNLV. It is demonstrating weekly to be an improving, athletic side capable of being more competitive than it has shown in years.
But it’s still not near good enough to blow the kind of coverages defensively and the type of scoring chances offensively it did and expect to beat even someone as average as UNR.
“You can pick any reason in the world,” Rebels running back Frank Summers said. “We just didn’t get it done.”
Reasons are plentiful. The Rebels had three points at halftime and should have had at least 10 or more. But they had to settle for a field goal on one drive and had a ball dropped and then batted at the goal line for an interception on another.
For as much as redshirt freshman quarterback Travis Dixon continues to progress and gain the kind of maturity he impressively displayed over the final frantic minutes, UNLV’s version of the spread offense has obvious issues.
The Rebels had scored just five touchdowns in the red zone their first four games and ranked seventh among Mountain West Conference teams with a 73.3 percent success rate inside the 20-yard line. They were 2-for-4 Saturday.
Summers rushed 24 times for 120 yards and a score, but the Rebels still go away from him too often when teams appear to be wearing down.
Example: In a 13-all game with under eight minutes remaining, the Rebels, off a 12-yard gain by Summers (who rushed for 46 yards the previous two series), had first-and-10 at the UNR 38.
Summers then rushed for 3 yards. But instead of staying with him, the call was for a pass, which was underthrown in the flat to tight end Ryan Worthen. It led to a predictable throwing down on third-and-7 (another incompletion) and then an awful snap on a field-goal attempt from 52 yards that earned the Rebels nothing.
It’s as if UNLV’s play- calling at times is more about coaches being in love with the spread than reacting to the immediate situation. The Rebels shouldn’t fear breaking an opponent’s will by continuing to run Summers, but it should be done inside and off tackle — not from those slow, deliberate outside calls.
Summers might not be able to beat me to the edge. Play to your strength. Pound him again and again.
Sanford properly gave UNR credit afterward, and Ault’s decision to remain aggressive on his team’s game-winning drive and play to win instead of settling for overtime speaks to his aptitude. Ault doesn’t get out-coached most Saturdays, and he certainly didn’t here. The only shock might have been him actually allowing players to speak afterward.
All you need to know: UNR gained 458 yards to UNLV’s 454 and owned a time-of-possession advantage of just 30:22 to 29:22. Nothing was decided until the game’s final play, when Dixon’s pass into the end zone sailed just high of two teammates.
It was as close as close can be in countless ways except one: UNR made the plays that win games.
“It kills me,” Sanford said. “It hurts. It’s very disappointing and frustrating. But we beat ourselves. We believed we were going to win. We expected to win.”
One problem: They didn’t deserve to.
The Fremont Cannon remains blue for another year. Rightfully so, given what transpired.
Ed Graney’s column is published Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or email@example.com.ED GRANEYMORE COLUMNS