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Gordon: Baldwin’s heroics help UNLV salvage season

His brethren in UNLV’s starting defensive backfield had secured interceptions amid the first 11 games of UNLV’s football season, leaving sophomore safety Johnathan Baldwin one more game to pluck an opposing pass and evade the playful ribbing.

So when UNR quarterback Nate Cox’s third-quarter pass was tipped Saturday inside Allegiant Stadium, Baldwin pounced — securing the deflected pigskin, running 15 yards and flipping field position in the process.

“Every DB had a pick, except me,” Baldwin said. “It was nice to join my teammates with that.”

Even better in a victory.

Baldwin didn’t just intercept his first pass of the season Saturday. He returned a fumble 55 yards for UNLV’s first score and deflected a pass near the goal line on UNR’s final possession, helping the Rebels salvage an underwhelming yet successful season with a 27-22 victory over their Northern adversaries.

The six-game losing streak is over, but the Rebels’ season might not be. Thanks to their hearty Academic Progress Rate, they may be be bowl eligible — even with five wins. That they won’t know until next week, leaving UNLV in a holding pattern until the regular season concludes for rest of the five-win programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

“I’ve never been in a situation before. It’s not in our hands,” Rebels coach Marcus Arroyo said, noting that it’s still “an awesome situation to be in.”

‘Make a play’

That it may be. But not as awesome as simply reaching the six-victory plateau, which the Rebels should have done following their 4-1 start. Their victory over the rival Wolf Pack on Saturday was their first in five one-score games this season.

They nearly blew that one, too.

UNR built a 13-0 lead by forcing four consecutive three-and-outs. Baldwin erased it by scooping an errant pitch and scoring, resuscitating the lifeless Rebels and their equally lifeless supporters inside Allegiant Stadium. His touchdown ignited a 27-3 scoring run — fueled by backup quarterback Harrison Bailey and kicker Daniel Gutierrez — that UNLV would nearly squander in the final 6 minutes, 45 seconds.

A 12-play, 75-yard drive resulted in a touchdown for UNR, and UNLV’s ensuing three-and-out would afford the Wolf Pack an opportunity to take the lead.

But Baldwin batted Cox’s final pass to the turf, sending the Scarlet and Grey sideline into a tizzy in the process.

“One side or the other has got to step up and make a play,” Arroyo said. “And (the defense) did a fantastic job all the way till the end. Can’t be prouder (of) those guys.”

And so the Fremont Cannon was transported back to UNLV’s campus, where the Rebels will douse it Monday with scarlet paint. They conquered their rivals and their one-score demons.

They lost eight such games last season en route to a 2-10 finish.

They must be better in close games moving forward, but their 5-7 mark still reflects the progress they’ve made under Arroyo, who maintained the faith of his players amid the lengthy losing streak.

“Every week, we took the mindset to go 1-0, whether we accomplished it or not,” said Bailey, a Tennessee transfer. “That group in the locker room is so close. Works so hard. Today meant a lot to everyone in this community, and I’m glad we were able to get it done for the seniors.”

A successful season

They’ll leave with something to celebrate: a win over their rival and the program’s first five-win season since 2017.

The underclassmen return with a new standard: six wins or more.

“This was 1,000 percent about the locker room right now, and I mean that with all my heart,” Arroyo said. “Reflecting back (on the season) is going to be something that we do here as soon as we get done to make sure that this growth and all these things that we can fix, get fixed.

“But right now, this is the final moment for those seniors.”

Cannon secured. Season salvaged.

Contact Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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