Updated November 18, 2023 - 7:16 pm
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Air Force on Saturday honored its departing seniors from the football team with a pregame ceremony. At its conclusion, fireworks were set off beyond one end zone.
And then they kept blasting all game long.
But UNLV kept blasting back.
The Rebels outlasted Air Force 31-27 at Falcon Stadium to grab an inside track to host the Mountain West championship game Dec. 2.
To clinch such a reality, UNLV (9-2, 6-1) needs to defeat San Jose State at noon next Saturday at Allegiant Stadium. A loss could throw things into a real mix, with several teams competing for the two spots in the title game and for which might host it.
But what a wild one this was between the Rebels and Falcons.
It wasn’t over until a fourth-down pass from the 8-yard line fell incomplete for Air Force, the Rebels then able to celebrate a win that saw them rally from a 24-7 first-half deficit.
“This is the moment you dream of,” UNLV linebacker Jackson Woodard said. “You’re playing football as a kid and you’re watching those close games and making big plays at the end. This is what we worked for. Let’s go do it. Let’s finish.”
They did just that, shutting out Air Force (8-3, 5-2) in the second half after surrendering 27 points over the opening 30 minutes. But adjustments were made, and an Air Force run game that amassed 257 yards before intermission was suddenly held to just 87 over the final two quarters.
So many key plays, so many players making them for the Rebels.
There was a fourth-quarter fake punt from UNLV, a 12-yard pass from punter Marshall Nichols to Kris Williams. It helped set up a 39-yard field goal from Jose Pizano that gave UNLV its four-point advantage and forced the Falcons to need a touchdown in the closing minutes.
There was Nichols pinning Air Force inside its own 2-yard line with under six minutes remaining.
There was wide receiver Ricky White catching eight passes for 169 yards and one score — a 78-yarder on UNLV’s second snap of the game. White tied a school record with his fourth straight 100-yard receiving effort and is the only player to do so in the same season.
There was redshirt freshman quarterback Jayden Maiava completing 15 of 29 passes for 339 yards with two scores and two interceptions.
“At first, it’s a loss for words,” said UNLV tight end Kaleo Ballungay, who had an 84-yard reception and a 6-yard scoring catch. “We didn’t know what to say (afterward). Just genuine happiness. Playing our butts off like that. We played with an edge coming out after halftime and got the job done for sure.”
His 84-yard catch was the fourth-longest reception in school history. A big day for the big fella.
More fireworks coming
It wasn’t easy. The Rebels were penalized 10 times for 120 yards. They trailed 27-14 at intermission. They made their share of mistakes all day long.
But you can’t overstate the importance of such a second-half defensive effort.
One that came down to a final Falcons drive for, well, everything.
“You want to try and put your team in position to win a game,” UNLV coach Barry Odom said. “It’s so hard to get to that moment. We knew it was going to come down to a last play. The resolve we showed … it felt like it took forever.”
It was big for UNLV to score before halftime and cut into the deficit. It was huge for it to score on its first drive after intermission, a three-play drive that covered 85 yards. It was massive for it to take the lead for good with 2:55 remaining in the third quarter.
And so the biggest game in UNLV football history — or as so many proclaimed the past week — ended in celebration for the Rebels.
“We knew we had a job to do,” Ballungay said. “We made adjustments. I said a quick prayer (before the final play), but we knew our defense had us. We knew we would get that stop. Back to Vegas and prepare for next week.”
Should be some serious fireworks then, too.