LAS VEGAS — The first major test for Barry Odom’s new-look Rebel squad couldn’t have started any worse.
On their fifth play from scrimmage, Doug Brumfield threw an interception directly to Vanderbilt freshman cornerback Martel Hight who took it 37-yards the other way for the opening touchdown.
UNLV’s offense responded to the initial bad break by being forced into a three-and-out on their next two possessions. After taking several excruciating hits from the Vanderbilt front, UNLV QB Doug Brumfield entered the medical tent after their third drive and did not return.
Vanderbilt responded on each occasion, first with a 30-yard field goal from Jacob Borcilla, then on a 56-yard touchdown connection from AJ Swann to London Humphreys.
Before the Rebels knew it, they were down 17-0 in their big test against an SEC opponent.
And yet, before I could even muster the words “same old Rebels”, spark plug Jacob De Jesus shocked life back into UNLV by bringing the ensuing kickoff out 36-yards to nearly midfield.
With second string QB Jayden Maiava now on the field, the Rebels marched the down Vanderbilt’s half of the field in what felt like just a few seconds. Freshman Jett Thomas ran it in from 21-yards out to break the ice for UNLV.
Now down only 17-7, the rejuvenated Rebels forced Vanderbilt QB AJ Swann into a costly interception deep in his own territory. Down 17-0 just moments before this, Maiava and the UNLV offense ran on to the field with a chance to get the score within three points.
Vanderbilt showed their last bit of defensive resistance for the afternoon at that point, forcing a three-and-out to hold UNLV to just a field goal attempt. Jose Pizano had no problem with the 31-yard kick to make it a 17-10 game.
On Vanderbilt’s next possession, UNLV’s Elijah Shelton batted away AJ Swann’s pitch on the sweep attempt and Jerrae Williams scooped it and ran it in for a 41-yard score.
At the 13-minute mark in the second quarter Vanderbilt had a 17-0 lead. By the 9:40 mark in the second-quarter, UNLV had come all the way back to knot the game at 17 behind two back-breaking Vandy turnovers.
The UNLV defense continued to hang tough, and Pizano drilled his second of four field goals just before the half to give UNLV a 20-17 entering the break.
The only apt way to describe the second half would simply be to say that all hell broke loose.
UNLV opened the second half with a five minute drive into Vanderbilt territory, capped again by Pizano’s third field goal to make it 23-17.
On the Rebels next possession, Maiava ran it in for a 24-yard touchdown to cap another impressive drive. At this point, UNLV had scored 30 unanswered points.
The Commodores refused to let the Rebels put them down without a fight. After a methodical drive ended with a Swann touchdown pass to Justin Ball, Vandy cut the score to 30-24. On their next two drives, Borcila hit two field-goals to tie the game once again at 30-30.
With just over 2:20 remaining in the game, Maiava launched a deep-ball to Jacob De Jesus, who completed the catch-and-run for a 48-yard score to give UNLV the lead.
Now up 37-30, a stop for UNLV on Vanderbilt’s ensuing drive would win them the game. If you’ve spent years watching UNLV football, you knew it wasn’t going to be that easy.
Feeling the pressure of the clock, Swann found a wide-open Quincy Skinner Jr. for a 34-yard touchdown completion with 1:12 remaining. Borcila’s extra point made it 37-37.
Maiava’s dream night then nearly ended in a nightmare, as he threw a brutal interception directly to Vanderbilt linebacker Nicholas Rinaldi, who ran it deep into UNLV territory with just under a minute left.
Vanderbilt ran three short run plays, draining UNLV’s timeouts, but couldn’t go anywhere with them and in turn had to try what could have been a game-winning field goal as time expired with 44 seconds still remaining.
This bad break turned even worse for Vanderbilt, as Borcila missed the chip-shot from 33-yards out to give UNLV the ball back. Albeit, deep in their own territory.
Yet, Odom had trust in his backup to let it fly. And let it fly he did.
Maiava hit senior wide receiver Ricky White with a brilliant pass for a 48-yard completion to the Vanderbilt 18-yard line with 9 seconds left. White was able to get out of bounds, giving the field goal unit all the time they needed.
Jose Pizano had already come out and hit the 36-yard game-winning field goal before the brain could truly sink in the madness of what had just occurred. 40-37, Rebels.
Jayden Maiava was 19/33 through the air with 261 yards and a touchdown, adding 33 yards and a touchdown on 7 carries. Ricky White tallied 12 receptions and 165 yards and Jacob De Jesus added 187 all-purpose yards, including 101 yards via kickoff return.
De Jesus had the highest kickoff return average in the FBS leading into Saturday’s game. He will almost certainly remain atop that list for at least another week.
UNLV travels to El Paso next week to take on UTEP at the Sun Bowl. The game will be broadcast at 4 p.m. PDT on ESPN+.