UNLV unable to come up big in its biggest game

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
The Rebels' first appearance in the Mountain West title game was a struggle on both sides of the ball in a blowout loss to Boise State.

LAS VEGAS — All week, Barry Odom talked about his UNLV football team playing with a chip on its shoulder. 

Funny, but Spencer Danielson must’ve been saying the same thing about his Boise State Broncos. Because it sure looked like Boise State carried the bigger chip as it came into Allegiant Stadium Saturday for what was essentially a UNLV home game and won the Mountain West championship.

The Broncos built a 31-14 second-quarter lead and never looked back, finishing up 44-20 winners and getting to represent the MW in the L.A. Bowl on Dec. 16. I’d like to think by then, school officials will have taken that interim tag off Danielson and made him the permanent head coach. He certainly has earned that opportunity as the Broncos have now won three straight since he replaced Andy Avalos on Nov. 12.

But the focus all week was all about the Rebels, who were playing in their first-ever Mountain West football championship. There has been much hand-wringing by the UNLV fan base about losing Odom and his assistants to bigger schools. There was curiosity about the size of the crowd UNLV would attract playing on the big stage. And there was the question of whether the Rebels would bounce back after losing at home a week ago to San Jose State to bring a 9-3 record into Saturday’s conference championship game.

The answers were clear. The announced crowd was 31,473, the largest for a MW championship game. The Rebels found themselves behind early and chased the game throughout, which is never a good thing. And ultimately, they suffered their first losing streak under Odom. They’ll go to a bowl game having dropped two straight.

“I think we were ready to play,” Odom said. “There was a great feel and excitement during the week. We just couldn’t make enough plays on our side.
“I hate that we lost. But the standard for our program is we want to be in this championship game every year.”

Sounds like a guy who isn’t leaving anytime soon.

December football is kinda foreign around here. We don’t see it that often with UNLV. Maybe the moment was too big for the Rebels. It certainly seemed that way for Jayden Maiava, the freshman quarterback who had come in for the injured Doug Brumfield in September and never left the huddle.

Maiava has made great strides running Brennan Marion’s ”Go-Go Offense.” But Saturday, he made several critical mistakes that would ultimately contribute to doing the Rebels in.

His fumble in the second quarter led to a Boise State touchdown. The next series, Maiava was picked off and it culminated in a field goal for the Broncos. Late in the first half, he had Corey Thompson Jr. wide open for what would have been a sure touchdown and he overthrew him. 

Maiava’s struggles continued in the second half. He scrambled on fourth down and came up a half-yard short. He was intercepted early in the fourth quarter after the Rebels had recovered a fumble in Boise territory. All in all, it was a very tough afternoon for the Liberty High School product. His numbers reflect his struggles — 166 yards on 15-of-29 passing, no touchdowns, two interceptions and a fumble before he was pulled for Brumfield midway through the fourth quarter.

Hey, it’s football. It happens. Even the best ones mess up. It was unfortunate for Maiava and the Rebels it happened to be in what was arguably the biggest game the school has played in years, perhaps the biggest ever. 

But it wasn’t all Maiava’s fault. The defense gave up its share of big plays as well and they’ve done that on numerous occasions all season. Despite a Fred Thompkins Pick-6 and a fumble recovery, the unit gave up 44 points. Odom, for all his expertise in coaching defense, saw his guys get beat time and again Saturday.

“We’ll all learn from the good and the not so good,” Odom said. “He (Maiava) is banged up but he’ll bounce back.”

And while no one will confuse Boise State (8-5) with say, Michigan, the Broncos are accustomed to being in this setting. Saturday was the school’s seventh appearance in the MW title game and their fourth win. They looked very comfortable in this setting. They’ll head to LA and a date with either UCLA or Cal. The official bids will be announced Sunday. 

As for the Rebels, they’re not through competing. At 9-4, they’re likely headed to Albuquerque on the 16th to face New Mexico State in the New Mexico Bowl of they’ll go to Tucson Dec. 30 to play in the Arizona Bowl against an opponent from the Mid-American Conference. It’ll be UNLV’s first bowl appearance in 10 years.

“We have another game,” said junior receiver Ricky White, who set the school record for receiving yards in a season Saturday after having six receptions for 86 yards and passed Jim Sandusky for No. 1 with 1,394. “It’s a great honor (to get the record), but I want to win.”

They’ll get that chance to finish on a high note. UNLV last won 10 games as a program back in 1984 when the Rebels went 11-2. 

“The challenge of getting to 10 wins will be a mission for our kids and staff to get that done,” Odom said. “I want our kids to have a great experience. You make memories at the bowl site and he game that you can’t put a price tag on.”