Updated October 16, 2021 - 10:08 pm
UNLV senior running back Charles Williams was speechless and dejected as he tried to unfasten his shoulder pads inside the postgame interview room Saturday at Allegiant Stadium. So, too, was junior linebacker Jacoby Windmon before offering to help Williams, who politely declined.
The two sat in silence for a minute, staring glumly at their laps as they awaited the arrival of Rebels coach Marcus Arroyo.
Strangely, their silence spoke volumes after UNLV’s most devastating loss of the season.
Williams ran for a career-high 221 yards and three touchdowns against Utah State, and Windmon recorded 18 tackles, including two for loss. But their valiant efforts couldn’t propel the Rebels past the Aggies, who rallied for a 28-24 victory before an announced crowd of 21,322.
The Rebels are 0-6 — they haven’t won since Nov. 30, 2019 — but this loss seemed to sting more than the other five. UNLV led Utah State for all but 35 seconds in the fourth quarter, having forced four consecutive stops to keep its lead.
But with the game on the line, the Aggies covered 60 yards in nine plays, with Elelyon Noa running 11 yards for the game-winning score with 35 seconds to play.
“It hurts. Really hurts my soul,” Williams said after the finest performance of his career. “We gave it our all tonight.”
UNLV nursed a lead for much of the game, relying mostly on Williams while Windmon and his teammates stymied Utah State’s offense. Sure, the Rebels allowed a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the first quarter to former Centennial High School standout Savon Scarver, who tied the NCAA career record of seven.
But Williams, whose single-game rushing total tied for ninth-most in school history, promptly helped them regain the lead on the ensuing play with a 75-yard scoring sprint.
The formula seemed simple: Ride Williams, allow freshman quarterback Cameron Friel to manage the game and force Utah State (4-2, 2-1 MW) to sustain long drives. And the Rebels did just that, showcasing improved execution and cohesion on both sides of the ball.
But Friel was knocked from the game after taking a vicious hit while throwing an interception with 9:26 to play.
UNLV, which fell to 0-2 in the conference, accounted for minus-1 yard on its final seven plays without Friel.
Conversely, an offense that was dormant for much of the second half finally found its groove on Utah State’s penultimate possession. Noa converted a fourth-and-1 with 90 seconds to play, and quarterback Logan Bonner completed three straight passes to uncovered receivers to set up the game-winning touchdown run.
Junior Justin Rogers replaced Friel for UNLV’s final two possessions, and his desperation fourth-down throw was bobbled and intercepted in the waning seconds.
“It doesn’t come down to one call or one play,” Arroyo said. “We’ve got to do a better job collectively to put ourselves in position and close that one out. We’re leading the entire game. The expectations we have right now are really high.
“I’m heartbroken and mad and humbled and pissed. All the stuff that we’re all feeling in that locker room right now is pretty rough. It’s been like that all season, too.”
Williams also had scoring runs of 1 yard and 5 yards, rushing behind an offensive line that created holes more consistently and protected Friel in the pocket. He passed for 107 yards before departing with an apparent lower body injury.
UNLV senior linebacker Austin Ajiake finished with 16 tackles, and freshman cornerback Cameron Oliver had an interception.
Bonner passed for 298 yards and two touchdowns to Deven Thompkins, who ran free en route to 12 receptions for 180 yards.
Four of UNLV’s losses are by eight points or fewer, but none of the other ones ended quite like this one.
“We’ve got to find a way to ramp that thing up and stay steady,” Arroyo said. “That’s my job, and I take that job pretty serious.”