UNLV scored a pair of fourth-quarter touchdowns to beat San Diego State 28-24 at Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday night.
Phillip Payne caught a 17-yard touchdown pass from Omar Clayton with 1:24 to play in the game and the defense held the Aztecs out of the end zone.
Terrance Lee returned an interception 40 yards for a score to get the Rebels within three points early in the fourth quarter.
San Diego State led by as many as 17 points in the third quarter, but did not score again.
The victory meant that Mike Sanford, who was fired last week, went out on a winning note.
“What we talked to the team about was winning for our seniors. This win today is not about me and it’s not about the coaching staff. It is about our seniors and our players,” he said. “I love the senior class. I am very proud of how they played today. I’m very proud of how they represented themselves.”
Clayton threw for 274 yards and the game-winning touchdown. Payne broke out of a month-long slump to catch five passes for 107 yards and the score.
Senior Chris Brogdon ran for 49 yards to lead the UNLV rushing attack.
Walter Kazee ran for a game-high 106 yards for San Diego State, while Ryan Lindley threw for 341 yards and a score.
Roberto Wallace caught eight passes for 106 yards and a touchdown.
It was a good day for the UNLV athletics department as the football victory completed a sweep of the day.
The basketball team started the day with an upset victory over 16th-ranked Louisville earlier in the afternoon.
The interception returned for a touchdown by Lee was the first return yards of the season for the UNLV defense.
UNLV had not gained a single yard on any of the 15 previous turnovers it had forced this season.
It also marked the first interception returned for a score since Beau Bell accomplished the feat at Wyoming in October, 2007.
UNLV trailed 24-7 after Lane Yoshida’s 26-yard field goal with 9:39 left in the third quarter, but the Rebels scored the final 21 points of the game.
“They believed they were going to win and we kept fighting,” Sanford said of his players. “One of the things we have done this year as a football team is kept fighting. I think they showed tremendous character.”
It tied for the third biggest comeback win in school history. The largest was a 21-point rally overcome against Nebraska-Omaha in 1976.
The other 17-point comeback win came against Brigham Young in 1981.
UNLV won two of its final three games to finish 5-7, marking the second straight season with that record.
The Rebels did have some success at home, however.
The 4-3 mark at Sam Boyd Stadium makes two consecutive winning seasons in this building.
It is the first time UNLV had back-to-back winning records at home since 1985-87.
Sanford era over
Mike Sanford concludes his tenure as UNLV’s head coach with a record of 16-43 overall and 8-32 in Mountain West play.
He is the first UNLV coach to win his final game since a retiring Tony Knap beat UTEP 27-20 in 1981.
Closing a career
Jason Beauchamp recorded 15 tackles on Saturday night to finish his career with 334.
He passed Beau Bell for second on the school’s all-time list, behind only Adam Seward.
Beauchamp also played in his school-record 48th game. Ryan Wolfe would also have shared the record had he not been hurt last week.
Casey Flair was the previous record-holder.
Kyle Watson missed a pair of field goals in his final game for UNLV, but the senior kicker did keep his streak in tact.
Watson made all 74 of his extra-point attempts at the school.
The streak is good for No. 2 all-time in the conference, behind only Colorado State’s Jason Smith, who made 86 straight.