Even in its two victories, UNLV hadn’t played in a game close enough that strategy and play-calling truly mattered — not until Thursday.
With a chance to grab momentum early in the second half, a curious Rebels play-call instead tilted the game in Air Force’s favor.
The Falcons then used their powerful running game to ground out 169 yards in the third quarter en route to a 35-20 victory in UNLV’s final game of the season at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Air Force (8-4, 5-3 Mountain West Conference) rushed for 343 yards, topping its average of 315.6 per game, which ranks second in the nation.
The Rebels (2-9, 2-5), 19-point underdogs who came in allowing 211.9 yards rushing per game, led 17-7 in the second quarter and took a 17-14 edge into halftime.
UNLV caught a huge break early in the third quarter when safety Alex De Giacomo recovered Air Force quarterback Tim Jefferson’s fumble at the Falcons 21-yard line.
Facing fourth-and-3 at the 14 on the ensuing possession, the Rebels opted to go for a first down.
"We had a lot of momentum," UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said. "I thought it was the thing to do. With their style of offense, we had a chance to put them down by two scores."
Offensive coordinator Rob Phenicie called for a power dive. Running back Tim Cornett, who rushed for 69 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries, charged forward but was stopped about a yard short.
Hauck defended the call.
"Those are situations we talk about during the week," Hauck said. "It wasn’t like we had to think about it. We knew what we wanted to run in that situation.
"It was a power (run), and they blitzed into it. It’s one of those where if you get a crease, you go into the end zone, probably."
Air Force took full advantage of the Rebels’ turnover on downs.
"What changed the game was them going down and scoring on the next series," Hauck said.
Mikel Hunter ran for 30 yards on the Falcons’ first play of the following possession.
Two plays later, wide receiver Jonathan Warzeka burst down the left sideline for a 54-yard touchdown run and a 21-17 lead.
Air Force added a pair of 2-yard scoring runs by Jefferson, sandwiched around a 32-yard field goal by UNLV’s Nolan Kohorst, to put the game away.
It was yet another disappointing night for the Rebels, who couldn’t take advantage of a rare opportunity to claim victory.
It was also the final home game for 19 seniors, including quarterback Omar Clayton.
He completed 18 of 30 passes for 224 yards and a touchdown, moving into second place on UNLV’s career passing list with 6,211 yards.
Clayton also set a Rebels quarterback record by playing in his 38th career game.
He wasn’t ready to think about leaving Sam Boyd Stadium for the final time as a player.
"I’m just disappointed," Clayton said.
It was that kind of night.
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914.UNLV vs. Air Force football
How They Scored
AIR FORCE — 35
UNLV — 20
KEY: The Falcons rushed for 343 yards.
NEXT: Rebels at San Diego State, 5 p.m. Nov. 27, The Mtn. (334), KWWN (1100 AM, 98.9 FM)