UNLV beats Air Force, Mountain West championship game within reach

UNLV captures pole position in the Mountain West title race, beating Air Force 31-27 in what was likely the biggest game in program history.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo.–We all knew this was likely the biggest game in the history of UNLV’s football program. With Air Force coming off two brutal losses to Army and Hawaii and nursing injuries to their star quarterback and halfback, I expected a more decisive output from the Rebels. Still, they managed to overcome a double-digit deficit that was acquired during a nightmare second quarter where they were outscored 20-7. It was another test of fortitude for this first-year coaching staff, and they once again overcame and in turn pushed themselves to the top of the Mountain West title race.

How it happened

UNLV has made a habit out of scoring touchdowns early on their opening drive this season, so there was little surprise when Jayden Maiava found Biletnikoff-nominated receiver Ricky White for a 78-yard touchdown on just their second play from scrimmage.

The early momentum was short-lived for the Rebels however, as a 55-yard touchdown run by Air Force running back John Lee Eldridge at the end of the first quarter set off a run of 24 straight unanswered points for the Falcons.

UNLV filed a response with just under 2 minutes left in the first half, as Vincent Davis Jr. capped off an 8 play, 75-yard touchdown drive with a touchdown run from 12 yards out, bringing the Rebels within 10 points.

The halftime deficit was stretched to 13 for UNLV as Air Force stretched their lead to 27-14 on a field goal as the first half.

Whatever speeches Barry Odom has been giving at halftime should be studied, as that field goal would be good for the last points UNLV would allow during the game. It was still barely enough, but a second straight second half shut-out by the Rebels was the driving force behind the turnaround.

The Rebels started their second half comeback effort when Maiava found emerging tight end Kaleo Ballungay for an 84-yard reception that set the UNLV offense up on Air Force’s one-yard line. Donavyn Lester punched it in on the next play to bring the Rebels within a touchdown, as Pizano’s extra point made it a 27-21 game in favor of Air Force.

UNLV’s defense held firm for the remainder of the third. With just under three minutes remaining in the quarter, the offense broke through once again as Maiava found Ballungay for a five-yard touchdown completion that capped off a 10 play, 75-yard drive. UNLV went ahead 28-27 on the Pizano extra point.

The Rebels got a little bit of insurance early in the fourth as a Pizano field goal stretched their lead to 31-27, but it was still just barely enough. The kick was set up by a successfully converted fake punt, courtesy of Marshall Nichols and Kris Williams.

The game came down to a goal line scenario for Air Force, having driven down the field with a four minute drive that felt like death by a thousand paper cuts. This was emphasized by a defensive pass interference call on star Rebel DB Cameron Oliver that set up the goal-to-go scenario in the final seconds of the game.

Air Force had nothing on their final stand. The Rebels forced an incompletion on fourth-and-eight, with no flags flying as baited breaths awaited. UNLV now sits in pole position for a Mountain West title game berth.

Wrap up

UNLV QB Jayden Maiava finished with 339 through the air, completing 15-of-19 passes with two touchdowns and two interceptions in the win. It wasn’t his best outing, but he made the plays winning quarterbacks need to make.

Maiava also led the Rebels in rushing with 39 yards on eight carries.

Ricky White predictably led UNLV in receiving, catching eight passes for 169 yards and a touchdown.

Next game

UNLV takes on San Jose State at home next weekend in a crucial Mountain West showdown that will determine UNLV’s place in the championship picture. Kickoff is set for noon local time at Allegiant Stadium.