Optimists among Rebels fans have rough night

While researching Northern Colorado, the latest unheralded football program with a direction in its name that UNLV has scheduled to pad its football record, it was learned that “Sully” Sullenberger had obtained a master’s degree in public administration from up there.

It was thought going into Saturday night that the Bears were going to need Capt. Sullenberger against UNLV. With the Rebels a 25-point favorite on the off-shore line, the Hudson River supposedly was beckoning.

UNLV won 13-12.

Seth Czapenski, the Northern Colorado field goal kicker, missed a 23-yard chip shot with 5:45 to go that would have given the Bears the lead.

Stunning. Shocking even.

This would have been every bit as bad as past losses to Southern Utah and Northern Arizona had UNLV not been able to run all but three seconds off the clock after Czapenski missed.

“We watched Texas Tech down to the wire last week against Central Arkansas; we watched Nebraska today pretty much need a miracle against McNeese (State),” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said of other college football small fries coming up just short against bigger fries. “Those were all eye-opening.”

“We were very fortunate to get the win. Northern Colorado came in here and played well.”

You could almost see it coming. Again.

UNLV led only 10-3 at halftime, and then late in the third quarter it was 10-10 after the Bears drove the length of the field, or at least 97 yards of it.

People booed.

This was not an impressive result.

The Bears of Northern Colorado won Division II national championships in football in 1996 and 1997. They probably won’t win the Football Championship Subdivision — formerly known as Division I-AA — title this season. Saturday’s loss to UNLV was their 12th in a row.

From the UNLV perspective, beating Northern Colorado means the Rebels now have a one-game winning streak after losing to Arizona 58-13 on opening weekend.

And that’s really about all you could say.

UNLV also lost 58-13 to Arizona last year. Then the Rebels beat two other directional schools, Central Michigan and Western Illinois. Then they beat New Mexico and Hawaii, teams that do not have directions in their names, but usually play like it.

UNLV was 4-2.

Momentum was acquired.

And then the Rebels beat just enough lousy Mountain West teams and San Diego State to become one of only 70 teams to qualify for a bowl game.

A lot of people thought it could happen again this year, because UNLV is supposed to be better this year.

Next week, the Rebels play Northern Illinois, yet another directional school, at home. The Huskies have been really good recently, at least in a relative, Mid-American Conference sort of way. Two years ago, they lost 31-10 to Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Last year, they lost 21-14 to Utah State in the Poinsettia Bowl.

Utah State is a Mountain West member. The MWC no longer is very competitive in football.

Northern Illinois beat Northwestern 23-15 Saturday. Northwestern no longer is very competitive in football, either.

Might momentum build again?

Perhaps the most optimistic of optimists might still see that as a possibility.

It’s probably way too early, though, for the Heart of Dallas Bowl to send out scouts.

If you are one of these optimists, you might say that holding Northern Colorado to 12 points and 327 yards at least gave the defense something to hang its hat on, after Arizona hung 58 points and 787 yards on UNLV’s hat in the opener.

“We played much better and tackled much better on the defensive side of the ball,” Hauck said, and he was right, but this was Northern Colorado, whose only victory last year came against Langston.

So the Rebels were better on defense and they won, improving their record against these directional schools to 3-3 during the Hauck regime, which isn’t all that hot. Other positives: The new video screen on the scoreboard was spectacular. Every time the Rebels messed up, you could see it develop in crystal clarity.

It wasn’t supposed to be this difficult.

It started as if it were going to be easy.

My sense of it, and the off-shore oddsmakers sense of it going in was that the Rebels had too many guys named Devante or Devonte for a team such as Northern Colorado to contend with.

On UNLV’s first play from scrimmage, Blake Decker threw a 48-yard pass that Devonte Boyd took away from a Northern Colorado defender. It took just 1:50 off the spiffy new scoreboard game clock for the Rebels to take a 7-0 lead.

That pass to Boyd set the tone, at least until the Rebels started messing with the tone by trying flea-flicker passes that were intercepted and by not finding any semblance of offensive rhythm.

It was this lack of rhythm, and turnovers, that nearly led to another calamity against a team that Bishop Gorman probably could beat.

I saw long faces among the athletic department brass as early as halftime because there are myriadconcerns off the field, too.

A modest crowd of 17,289 turned out (or at least purchased tickets) for the home opener, so perhaps UNLV fans also are growing weary of these nonconference games against directional teams, especially when they turn out to be so difficult.

With huge guarantee checks becoming essential to balance the football budget — and to offset home crowds of 17,289 — that’s about to change.

Next year, the Rebels will play UCLA, Michigan and Brigham Young; in 2016, they’ll play UCLA again; in 2017, they’ll play Ohio State.

Of the nonconference opponents through 2021 that are known, only two, Northern Illinois in 2015 and Central Michigan in 2016, are directional schools.

Somebody might need to call Capt. Sullenberger.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski

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