UNLV’s game plan could use more whimsy, less by-the-book

Disappointing. You would think UNLV football coaches might have stayed up on this whole fake-an-injury-when-your-guys-are-dead-tired strategy that seems to have grabbed onto college defenses across the country, or at least the ones playing Oregon.

Hey, when you’re staring a two-win season square in the face, that line between cheating and gamesmanship draws a heck of a lot closer.

During the second half Thursday night, the Rebels should have been dropping left and right like felled deer during hunting season.

As it is, they couldn’t sustain their best 30 minutes of football this season against a quality opponent (meaning not New Mexico or Wyoming), began to wear down and ultimately were worn out by Air Force.

The Falcons won 35-20 before far fewer than the 13,790 announced at Sam Boyd Stadium. They won because the Rebels are neither deep nor capable enough yet where it counts most, which is to say those blocking for running backs or those trying to tackle them.

Progress for bad teams is measured differently than for good ones. UNLV the past few games gave up touchdowns before most fans found their seats, and still the Rebels responded.

Bad teams have a way sometimes of not exerting maximum effort as a season winds down and losing becomes commonplace. That hasn’t happened with UNLV under coach Bobby Hauck. The Rebels have kept playing.

They did so by beating Wyoming on Saturday and then by making Air Force earn its eighth win, one that might mean a return trip here for the Falcons in the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 22, assuming the Bowl Championship Series stars align for Texas Christian.

As if inspired by the Twisted Sister lyrics blaring across the stadium, the Rebels appeared not willing to take it anymore, at least in the first half. They entered as one of the nation’s worst sides at stopping the run, yet held one of its best rushing offenses to 85 yards those first two quarters.

But it doesn’t take much for a better team to eventually expose those short on numbers and skilled bodies. Air Force rushed for 169 yards in the third quarter and finished with 343.

Air Force had 64 rushing attempts, meaning UNLV might have had the heart to follow those lyrics about this being their life and their song, but fighting the powers that be wasn’t in the cards for a defense that was on the field for nearly 19 minutes of the second half.

Air Force just grinds you. It averaged 5.5 yards a carry while running a hurry-up scheme. Teams in the state of UNLV today can’t keep up for 60 minutes.

"Our guys fought hard and did some good things," Hauck said. "(Air Force) is awfully good running the ball. It’s a hard offense to play against. The plays mount and it’s difficult. It’s tiring when they keep hammering the fullback and running their style.

"I thought we were physical on both sides of the ball. There was some good. There was some bad. Their offense at times makes you frustrated. They make freshmen look like freshmen. They get you out of place and make you pay, which we knew going in. I wish we were able to sustain it offensively after halftime."

I wish the Rebels had called a different play on fourth-and-3 with a three-point lead early in the third quarter, when the Falcons fumbled on their opening drive and the Rebels moved to the Air Force 17.

It was the correct call to go for a first down. Teams with two victories going nowhere shouldn’t be thinking field goals unless it’s one to win a game in the final seconds.

But running a power dive play that is stopped inches short by a blitzing defense sure doesn’t say much for the creative chapter of UNLV’s playbook.

For a team that has offered some of the more bizarre fake punt calls perhaps in all of college football this season, you hoped for more at such an important time.

In the end, it was a final sendoff for 19 UNLV seniors, each of whom arrived with far bigger dreams than what transpired, each leaving without having experienced a winning season or bowl berth.

"We weren’t able to hold up," Hauck said.

They weren’t gonna take it anymore.

They didn’t want another to pick their destiny.

It was a heck of an idea for 30 minutes.

Then the Rebels went ultraconservative on their most important offensive play and didn’t have their defensive linemen give the fall-down-like-a-shot-deer thing a try.

Then it was really over.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday and Thursday on "Monsters of the Midday," Fox Sports Radio 920 AM.

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