Late-game poise buoys Rebels

When UNLV quarterback Omar Clayton was sacked with 47 seconds left Saturday, it looked like a replay of the Rebels’ game at Brigham Young last season.

The truth is, it could have resembled any number of close calls in which UNLV came up short a year ago.

Except this time was different.

At BYU, Clayton’s next pass after his untimely sack was an interception in the end zone to allow the Cougars to escape with a 42-35 victory.

Against Hawaii on Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium, two plays after his sack, Clayton threw a 15-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Phillip Payne with 36 seconds left to win, 34-33.

"We made the plays at the end that you’ve got to make to win," coach Mike Sanford said. "I believe that is a very positive step for us.

"Obviously, it is an ongoing thing, that you have to keep doing it. But I know for a fact that we gained a lot of confidence. I think we took a huge step forward as a football team, but we’re not done."

The Rebels certainly have had practice being in tight games. Four of their past six losses came after they took the lead into the final three minutes.

Just the week before, Oregon State beat the Rebels 23-21 with a field goal with seven seconds left.

If UNLV had lost this time, it would have been another game of failing to find a way. Only this time the Rebels responded when they had to.

Hawaii twice took leads in the fourth quarter, and each time UNLV answered with the go-ahead touchdown.

"This is a great motivator for this team," Clayton said. "There are going to be close games during the season."

The Rebels also showed fortitude in how they responded to the disappointing end to the opening drive of the second half. After the kickoff, they took nearly nine minutes off the clock, but kicker Kyle Watson’s 24-yard field-goal attempt hit the left upright.

That could have been crushing, and previous UNLV teams might have let down right then.

Not this one, at least not this time.

"We just believed we were going to win the game," Sanford said. "That was going to be our half, and we were going to find a way to win and do it."

As he said, the key is to keep it going. If this is a one-night wonder, then the program will not have truly progressed.

UNLV (2-1) opens Mountain West Conference play at noon PST Saturday at Wyoming (1-2), and it’s a game the Rebels should win. They have been listed as 6-point favorites.

But Sanford, now in his fifth season, never has won a conference road game.

Until Saturday, however, the Rebels probably would have lost a game that was there for the taking.

So maybe this is a different kind of UNLV team.

"I think it shows the maturity of this team," wide receiver Ryan Wolfe said. "I think we still have to get better.

"We’re not satisfied with how we played. A victory is always good, but we’ve still go to work on a lot coming into next week."

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Read the latest UNLV football updates at lvrj.com/blogs/unlv_sports.

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