PHOENIX — The intrigue surrounding Tuesday night’s Guaranteed Rate Bowl started hours ahead of the 7 p.m. MT kick-off time, thanks to a sudden and drastic change in the betting line that saw it go from Kansas -12.5 at opening to as low as Kansas -6.5 in some markets as game time approached.
The pre-game betting line and the circumstances around it weren’t the lead story from the game of course, but the referees and the inordinate number of penalties were. And when you consider the fact that Kansas racked up an unprecedented 218 yards (a bowl record) on a total of 18 flags, it isn’t hard to surmise where the tinfoil hat theories went in regards to the competitive integrity of the competition at hand.
It must also be noted that none of the hoopla really mattered anyway, because UNLV lost by 13 points and therefore did not cover any of the aforementioned numbers. Kansas won a thrilling shoot-out that perfectly encapsulated the thrills of bowl season and college football at large, scoring 28 unanswered points in the first half to take a 28-7 lead before a third quarter UNLV comeback brought the score as close as 28-24.
Admittedly, it did feel like there were points in the third quarter where UNLV could have fully dug themselves out of the early deficit they buried themselves in, but each time Jason Bean would find an open receiver in space and Kansas would steal the momentum right back.
As media and fans alike theorized what could have possibly been behind the line volatility, rumors began to swirl before the game that Kansas QB Jason Bean was battling an illness that put his status for the game in question. If Jason Bean really was sick, he did his best Michael Jordan “flu-game” impression by throwing for a staggering 449 yards and 6 touchdowns. Even in the wake of three interceptions, he still managed to make timely plays with both his arm and his legs, albeit with plenty of assistance from his receiving corp.
Two of those interceptions came at the hands of UNLV’s standout junior defensive back Cameron Oliver, who also added a brilliant pass break-up in the end zone in the first quarter. Oliver’s emergence as the leader of the UNLV secondary is one of the few bright spots from a back half of the season that left more questions than answers for the entire defensive unit.
The highlight of UNLV’s second half comeback was an outstanding 37-yard touchdown catch by star receiver Ricky White, adding to his dramatically long highlight reel for the season. Senika McKie also had a brilliant 50-yard catch and run for the Rebels in the fourth quarter, but the game had unfortunately been decided by then.
UNLV QB Jayden Maiava threw for 291 yards and three touchdowns in the loss, but two costly interceptions on passes that should have been held or thrown away were a major reason why UNLV fell so far behind in the first half.
The problem with Maiava in the second half of the year was that he would compound his mistakes and let bad performances snowball, and that happened again in the first half Tuesday. If he is going to be the starting QB for UNLV next season, he’s going to need to become more comfortable with the defensive concepts that shook him out of his shoes at times this season. More importantly, the coaching staff needs to try as best they can to instill a “short memory” in him as a QB.
In the second half, Maiava looked like the QB who took the starting job by force early in the season. The key for the coaching staff in the off-season is getting that version of him more often than we see the panicked version. I’ll be the first to admit I have been highly critical of him, but there is a lot of good traits in his game that can certainly be improved with a full offseason of work as QB1 on the roster.
“Two of the interceptions, I think, were forced throws that he’ll learn from,” UNLV coach Barry Odom said following the game. “I think with the combination of who we got coming back, the combination of his skill set, I think he can be an elite quarterback in college football.”
Jacob De Jesus led the UNLV skill positions by recording eight catches for 95 yards, as well as 40 yards and a touchdown on the ground. De Jesus was used out of the backfield at times in this game for the first time all season due to Courtney Reese hitting the transfer portal and Jai’Den Thomas being ruled out with a neck injury.
Ricky White tallied seven catches for 97 yards and a touchdown. White announced his intention to return to the program in 2024 this week, despite sure interest from both P5 and NFL camps alike. A top five receiver in yardage nationally, White could very well be a pre-season frontrunner to win the Biletnikoff Award. At the very least, he must be a substantial favorite for preseason Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year.
“We’re going to continue putting in the work. We definitely wanted this game, we wanted the 10-win season so this is hard,” Ricky White said following the game. “We’re definitely going to put in the work that we need to put in, you’re going to see a better team next year.”
UNLV finishes the season at 9-5, falling short of the 10 win plateau but still completing their most successful season in multiple generations. If you were to tell any UNLV fan in August where we would be on December 26th, they would surely be thrilled. The fact that the end to this season even feels disappointing after UNLV just won nine games and made it to the Mountain West championship game is a testament to just how far Barry Odom and company have taken this program in 12 short months.