Most UNLV football followers didn’t expect the rebuilding Rebels to win one of their first three nonconference games which included difficult road games at defending MAC champion Northern Illinois and Michigan sandwiched around Saturday night’s home opener with 13th-ranked UCLA.
The hope for most was UNLV would be competitive and show improvement while avoiding key injuries. And despite losing to the Bruins 37-3 before a crowd of 31,262, the Rebels (0-2) met the first criteria, holding UCLA’s highly-acclaimed quarterback and reigning national offensive player of the week Josh Rosen to some rather pedestrian passing numbers and yielding just one offensive first half touchdown.
But unlike last week’s tough 38-30 loss at NIU, the Rebels were unable to avoid the injury bug.
Starting quarterback Blake Decker collapsed to the ground with a right hamstring injury on the final play of the first quarter after sweeping around right end for an eight-yard gain and didn’t return. He was limping badly afterward with an ice bag strapped right below his right buttock.
“We’ll see,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said when asked the status of Decker afterward. “It’s a high hamstring and we’ll find out. It’s the nature of football. It’s unfortunate but next man in and we’ll move on.”
Decker, the Mountain West leader in both passing and total offense after Week 1, had already rolled up 52 yards passing and 19 yards rushing before the injury and appeared to have an open field ahead of him before going down untouched with the hamstring injury.
The Rebels trailed 10-0 at the time but it could have been closer. UNLV had bypassed an easy 35-yard field try on its second possession with a fake, but linebacker Deon Hollins was having none of it, grabbing holder Troy Hawthorne almost immediately as he tried to roll out, and Hawthorne’s hurried pass wasn’t close to a receiver.
Backup quarterback Kurt Palandech struggled, to put it kindly, struggled, completing 4-of-15 passes for just four yards. Even worse, Palandech appeared to panic when confronted with a strong Bruin pass rush just before halftime and threw a Garo Yepremian-like pass right to linebacker Kenny Young who then raced 23-yards untouched up the right sideline to increase UCLA’s lead to 17-0 at halftime.
“Sometimes you try to do too much,” Sanchez said. “I think you saw that at the end of the half. We’re in a great situation down 10 at the half. (Palandech) is just trying to do too much, trying to put too much on yourself so to speak. We’ll talk to him about that and he’ll get better about that and he’ll improve.”
Junior running back Paul Perkins rushed for 151 yards and two touchdowns for the Bruins (2-0), who set a school record with their 11th straight victory in games played away from the Rose Bowl, breaking the previous mark of 10 in a row set in 1997-98. UCLA’s last road loss came Oct. 26, 2013, at then-No. 2 Oregon, 42-14.
Rosen, who passed for 351 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-16 victory over Virginia in his college debut last week, completed just 22-of-42 passes for 223 yards, one touchdown and an interception in a little over three quarters of action.
“It wasn’t anything (UNLV) did,” UCLA coach Jim Mora said. “He wasn’t out of sync. It’s going to happen. It’s part of the game. I told you to temper expectations. It ain’t going to be as pretty every week as it was last week. It’s a great learning experience for him and for us.”
Rosen was victimized by about a handful of passes that bounced off the hands of receivers. He also misfired on several other passes.
“The impressive thing about our offense and Josh in particular, at no time, even when it wasn’t going exactly right and he was missing throws, did he ever show any lack of poise,” Mora said. “He was incredibly patient, cognizant of what was going on, never flustered — just kind of was like he always is — and that’s a really great sign.”
Jordan Payton caught a game-high five passes for 70 yards and a touchdown and junior Ka’imi Fairbairn added field goals of 25, 34 and 42 yards for the Bruins, who held spoiled the home coaching debut of Sanchez.
“Obviously, any time you don’t come away with a win it’s a frustrating deal,” Sanchez said. “There are some things we can continue to grow and get better at. I was proud of the way the defense played. They did a great job for the majority of the night.”
UCLA finished with 526 yards in total offense held the Rebels to 237 total yards, including 124 over the first three quarters. Perkins, the reigning Pac-12 rushing champion, had touchdown runs of 7 and 56 yards and didn’t play in the final quarter.
UNLV spoiled UCLA’s shutout bid with 3:04 remaining when junior Nicolai Bornand kicked a 32-yard field goal four plays after junior linebacker Trent Langham‘s 65-yard interception return of backup UCLA quarterback Jerry Neuheisel.