UNLV beat Nevada, 33-30, in overtime Saturday to keep the Fremont Cannon red as the Wolf Pack finished the regular season 7-5 overall and 4-4 in the Mountain West. Here is a Monday review of the game and a look-ahead to Nevada's upcoming bowl game.
Just the facts
Nevada fell into an early hole and trailed 17-0 after the first quarter after allowing some big plays defensively while being tagged with some costly penalties and missing a short field goal on offense. The Wolf Pack was able to settle down and cut the deficit to 17-13 late in the first half before UNLV struck with its second touchdown of at least 75 yards to take a 23-13 lead at intermission. After a scoreless third quarter, UNLV tacked on a field goal early in the fourth to take a two-touchdown advantage. But Nevada scored touchdowns on its next two possessions to tie the game at 27 before moving the ball across midfield with about a minute to go before being forced to punt, which sent the game into overtime. After Brandon Talton's 42-yard field goal opened overtime, UNLV took advantage of a Wolf Pack defensive bust, with Kenyon Oblad hitting Steve Jenkins for a game-winning 19-yard touchdown pass. About a minute later, a brawl broke out on the field that is documented in greater depth here.
Simply put: Nevada lost the one game it can't lose. This is the game all of Northern Nevada pays attention to (although it clearly does not attend as the 16,683 fans were the lowest figure for the Battle for the Fremont Cannon since 1989, although that game was a near sellout as it was played prior to Mackay Stadium's expansion). The Wolf Pack showed great resolve with a three-game win streak in November, but a lot of that was undone in the eyes of the fans with the second straight loss to UNLV, which was playing under a lame-duck coach who had already been fired and entered the game 3-8 overall and 1-6 in the Mountain West. Some fans will tell you if Nevada goes 1-11 with a win over UNLV the season is a success, and if Nevada goes 11-1 with a loss to UNLV the season is a failure. I don't subscribe to that. Really, that's dumb. But the Wolf Pack can't lose to UNLV when it has the better team. Nevada lost to UNLV as a 14-point favorite last season and as a 6.5-point favorite this year. Can't happen. That just can't happen. The Wolf Pack could still go on to win a bowl game and finish the season with eight wins (same as last year), but if the Fremont Cannon is not sitting at Cashell FieldHouse, it's hard to call the season a true success despite some notable wins in 2019.
Carson Strong made his Fremont Cannon debut and was excellent. Strong had his third turnover-free game in the last four contests, a stretch in which he has just one giveaway, and showed the late-game poise he displayed in his starting debut against Purdue to open the season. As Nevada made its late-game comeback, it appeared as if Strong would bookend the season with a 17-point home comeback win over Purdue and a 17-point home comeback win over UNLV. Alas, it was not meant to be as UNLV won in overtime, a post-game fight marred the contest and the Cannon remained red. That overshadowed Strong's performance, which included completing 33-of-54 passes for 351 yards and a touchdown. His QBR was 54.4 out of 100. Not crazy numbers, but Nevada couldn't run the ball and Strong led the Wolf Pack to back-to-back touchdowns in the final 7 minutes of the game with the outcome hanging in the balance. Equally impressive was his display after the game, which included taking blame for the loss and showing the kind of pain Wolf Pack fans want to see after their team loses the rivalry game.
Nevada was without two of its starting three wide receivers due to shoulder injuries, but the one starter who was healthy (Elijah Cooks) was spectacular. Cooks had 12 catches (his previous career high was seven) for 151 yards (his previous career high was 94) as the Wolf Pack force fed him targets. Cooks had two additional potential long receptions called incomplete as the ball was jarred loose upon contact with the ground. Both were huge plays. One would have been a touchdown. The other was a third-down play that would have put Nevada in the red zone but instead led to a punt. Dominic Christian also had a career outing, catching 11 passes (his previous career high was three) for 98 yards (his previous career high was 42). Christian scored a touchdown before exciting the game in the fourth quarter with a foot injury. It was a surprising Nevada couldn't muster a run game against UNLV, which was allowing 5.3 yards per carry entering the game (12th worst in the nation). The Wolf Pack averaged just 2.9 yards per rush. But Cooks and Christian both stepped up to help the offense move the ball.
This is a tough one because even the Wolf Pack players who had overall good games were beat in one-on-one situations or gave up defensive busts that allowed UNLV to score. Overall, Nevada's defense was fairly stout except for those busts, but those busts were the difference in the game as UNLV's touchdowns came on gains of 80 yards (run bust in the middle of the defense), 75 yards (beat in man coverage), 32 yards (coverage bust) and 19 yards (coverage bust). Take away those plays, which you obviously can't do, and Nevada would have held UNLV to 206 yards (or 3.4 yards per play). The Wolf Pack defense also didn't create any turnovers to give the offense a short field. We'll give the honor to defensive tackle Hausia Sekona, who had five tackles, including one for loss. Nevada's run defense allowed that 80-yard touchdown run, but gave up just 103 yards on UNLV's other 32 carries (3.1 yards per attempt). That summed up Nevada's defensive effort: a few big plays ruined 90 percent good work.
1 - Nevada and UNLV have played 45 times, but this was the first time the Battle for the Fremont Cannon went into overtime. The winning margin (three points) isn't technically the closest game in rivalry history. That was the first game, a 30-28 Nevada win. But you can't get closer than tied at the end of regulation. We also could have gone with "three" as our fun stat as Tony Sanchez went 3-2 against Nevada, tied for the second most wins by a UNLV coach in the series (only John Robinson's five wins are more). Jay Norvell fell to 1-2 against UNLV; Nevada is 3-4 against the Rebels since Chris Ault resigned after the 2012 season. Ault was 16-6 as a head coach against UNLV. All of Nevada's other coaches are a combined 11-12.
The Wolf Pack should be in a bowl considering it is 7-5 and it only takes six wins to be bowl eligible. The MW does have seven bowl-eligible teams for five bowl tie-ins, but there are only 79 bowl-eligible teams for 78 bowl spots, so it's highly unlikely Nevada (at seven wins) is the team that gets left out. The Wolf Pack must wait until Sunday to find out which bowl it is headed to, but it would be Nevada's 12th bowl appearance in the last 15 seasons (eight under Ault, two under Brian Polian and two under Norvell). Nevada is 4-7 in bowls during that stretch.