A dropped pass here, a busted coverage there, and it looked like the only question for UNLV would be the margin of loss.
The Rebels, though, fought back from a 17-point deficit in the second quarter and a 10-point one in the fourth.
UNLV nearly sent the game to overtime, but Daniel Gutierrez’s 43-yard field hit the right upright with 37 seconds left, allowing San Diego State to escape Sam Boyd Stadium with a 20-17 victory before about 12,000 fans.
“We’re all hurting,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said. “There are a lot of guys with tears in there.”
The Rebels (2-6, 0-4 Mountain West) also lost their margin for error. The Rebels, who next play at Colorado State next Saturday, have to win their final four games to become bowl eligible.
Which means playing more efficiently and effectively than they did against the Aztecs (7-1, 4-1).
1. Becoming the story.
Sports can be a brutal business.
UNLV clearly continues to play hard for Sanchez. The bottom-line results, though, are what determines whether a coach is retained or fired.
“My job’s no harder than anybody else’s job,” Sanchez said. “Mine’s a public job, though, right? You get a lot of people who probably have too much time on their hands and not working hard enough at their jobs, they’re making a lot of insinuations and comments. But at the end of the day, I’m a custodian of these kids. My job is to make sure we’re raising good men and they’re competing at a high level and they’re performing at a high level. Our guys are doing a really good job of competing right now.
“I’m pretty settled with who I am as a person. Do we all have moments where we go, ‘Oh, God, what’s going to happen?’ We do. Believe me, there are some scary moments, but it’s all self-talk. I tell myself I’m where I’m supposed to be. The Lord wants me here right now doing what I’m doing. If I worry about all that stuff (his job security), how am I good for those kids anymore?”
Sanchez knew he had to become bowl eligible to ensure he would return next season.
It’s not an easy task. Colorado State beat Fresno State on Saturday. Hawaii and San Jose State are probably headed to the postseason. UNR is seldom a treat.
The Rebels fought hard and should have at least made it to overtime, but came up inches from that happening. Tough loss. Tough situation for Sanchez.
“We’re always playing for our coaches, every single of them,” UNLV quarterback Kenyon Oblad said. “They’re the guys who show up every day and make us work as hard as we do, and they’re the guys who put the gameplans together. They do everything for us, so we try to give everything back to them.”
2. Ball belongs to Oblad.
If there was any question before, it’s been nearly erased now that Oblad looks like the Rebels’ starting quarterback going forward.
The redshirt freshman from Liberty High School overcame a slow start to complete 21 of 39 passes for 255 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
Oblad has thrown at least two touchdown passes in all four of his starts since taking over for Armani Rogers, who has a sprained knee.
Oblad said he felt “a lot more confident” now that he has some starts and first-team repetitions in practice under his belt.
Sanchez said he would discuss with the staff what to do should Rogers return from injury. There have been signs that Rogers is getting closer to returning, but he could look to take a medical redshirt by sitting out the rest of the season.
The better Oblad plays, the more likely it becomes Rogers has thrown his last pass for UNLV.
“He’s at the point now where he’s confident,” Sanchez said of Oblad. “We’ve got to challenge him now in all the critical details because I think he’s a hell of a football player.”
3. The Aztecs knew they were fortunate.
San Diego State coach Rocky Long had to catch himself.
His team won the game after all. It’s just didn’t feel like it.
“We ought to be celebrating, but we’re not,” Long said. “I don’t know if that’s right or wrong. It’s probably not right.”
He credited the Rebels for fighting back, but also said his team didn’t play its best.
“Our offense was terrible – absolutely terrible,” Long said. “If it’s not for us blocking a punt and getting a touchdown that way, we probably lose the game. I thought we were going to overtime, but their kicker misses a field goal so we got lucky.”
San Diego State quarterback Ryan Agnew agreed.
“They played more physical than we did,” he said, “and we’re fortunate to come out of here with a win.”