LAS VEGAS — They’re going bowling.
The question is whether they’ll do it as a conference championship team or a nationally ranked squad.
It wasn’t easy. Of course, when it comes to UNLV football, when is it ever easy? But on the strength of Jose Pizano’s right leg, Jayden Maiava’s right arm along with Ricky White’s and Jacob DeJesus’ hands, the Rebels put themselves in an unusual place, at least for this program.
By defeating Colorado State 25-23 Saturday on Homecoming at Allegiant Stadium on Pizano’s 28-yard field goal with three seconds remaining, UNLV improved to 6-1 and will be playing in a bowl for the first time in 10 years. What bowl and against which opponent won’t be known for a while. But what we do know is there’ll be December football on Maryland Parkway.
The last time we saw the Rebels in the postseason, it was in Dallas on New Year’s Day of 2014 when Bobby Hauck was the coach and UNLV was losing to North Texas, 36-14 in the Heart of Texas Bowl.
The Rebels were down 23-22 with 44 seconds to play after the Rams’ Jordon Noyes had nailed a 55-yard-field goal. But somehow, they managed to drive from their own 34 to the CSU 10 as Maiava found Ricky White for 21 yards, then DeJesus for 20 more.
Pizano took it from there. He had been perfect all day and he wasn’t about to miss with so much on the line.
“I was just focused on the snap and the hold,” he said as he set a school record with six field goals.
Coach Barry Odom said sometimes, you’re going to be in a close game and it comes down to executing one or two plays at the end.
“You’ve got to find a way; you’ve got to stay in the fight,” Odom said.
Normally at this time of the year, UNLV fans are focused on the men’s basketball team and how will the Runnin’ Rebels fare. Not now. Not the way Odom has the football team competing, battling, clawing and scratching every week.
They may not have extended the streak of 40 points a game beyond the four they carried into Saturday. But a win is a win and you take them however they come.
“I told our team when we first got here (last December) we don’t want to be defined on what happened before we got here,” Odom said. “Our kids are working extremely hard. We’re continuing to move in the right direction.”
And while you would think being bowl eligible would trigger a massive celebration, you’d be wrong. These guys say all the right things and they have gone from being hopeful they could win back in July when Fall practice began to being confident they’re going to be victorious every week.
“The goal is to be 1-0 every week,” said DeJesus, the 5-foot-7 stick of dynamite who can beat you several ways. “It’s great to be going to a bowl but we have bigger goals.”
And that’s to win the Mountain West. UNLV is 3-0 in conference play and will be tested next week when it travels to Fresno State. The Bulldogs had a bye this week and at 2-1, they can’t afford another slip-up.
But the Rebels and their fans should enjoy the moment because honestly, they don’t come around this often. Erick Harper, UNLV’s athletic director who was smart enough to cut Marcus Arroyo loose last November and hire Odom, said hopefully, the success translates to more community support.
“You want to monetize every opportunity,” Harper said. “I believed we had the right person in place to get us moving in the right direction and it’s a credit Coach Odom, his staff and his players for the job they’ve done so far.”
Things got hairy down the stretch as CSU (3-4 overall, 1-2 MW) showed its mettle by coming back from down 19-13 to take a 20-19 lead with 3:9 to go. And as the teams traded field goals late and the Rams retook the lead, 23-22, it seemed like the bowl celebration would have to wait.
I’m sure many of the 22,585 on hand had flashbacks to a year ago when the Rebels were 4-1 and wound up 5-7 and that this might be the start of yet another disappointing decline.
Yet Odom and his players responded the right way. Say what you want about the opponent and the setting of playing in a stadium which was two-thirds empty. But it got loud at the right time and in the end, everybody left happy, save for the guys in the green and white uniforms. And that’s the difference between this year and seasons past. A game that would’ve most decidedly have been lost was won because losing is no longer an accepted part of being in UNLV’s football program.
“The culture never stops,” Odom said. “You’re building it every day. Our kids are tough. They want to be coached. They know our practice habits become game-day reality.”
And the reality is for the first time in 10 years, there’s cause for celebration with Las Vegas’ college football team.