DeKALB, ILL. –The Tony Sanchez era started pretty much like so many UNLV football seasons have over the last decade … with a loss. But this time the Rebels returned home late Saturday night with something perhaps even more valuable than an upset victory.
UNLV, which closed as a 21½ point underdog, bolted to a 17-3 first half lead against defending MAC champion Northern Illinois, finished with a 28-24 edge in first downs and was driving for a potential game-tying touchdown late before turning the ball over on downs in a tough 38-30 loss to the Huskies.
Not bad for a team that played nine true freshman and was coming off a dismal 2-10 campaign.
“I’m proud of the guys,” Sanchez said. “We felt like we had a great opportunity to win a football game tonight.”
Junior quarterback Drew Hare threw for a career-high 360 yards and two touchdowns as Northern Illinois (1-0) won for the 31st time in its last 32 games at Huskie Stadium.
“Any win is a good win. Well take the win.” Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey said. “Give a lot of credit to Coach Sanchez. Those guys played extremely hard. They had us on the ropes in the first half.”
Junior Joel Bouagnon finished with 152 yards rushing and scored three touchdowns, all in the second half, as the Huskies rolled up 545 yards in total offense, including 343 after halftime. Junior wide receiver Kenny Golladay, a transfer from North Dakota, caught nine passes for 213 yards, the most ever for a Northern Illinois player in their first game.
Senior quarterback Blake Decker completed 21-of-39 passes for 319 yards, two touchdowns and an interception for UNLV (0-1), which led 17-10 at halftime.
But Northern Illinois needed only four plays after intermission to tie it on a 16-yard pass from Hare to tight end Desroy Maxwell. After Nicolai Bornand gave UNLV its final lead with a 33-yard field goal, Bouagnon led the Huskies on a 21-3 scoring spurt with touchdown runs of 16, 1 and 29 yards to put Northern Illinois ahead 38-23.
Decker hit Aaron Criswell with a 41-yard touchdown with 5:26 remaining to help UNLV close to within 38-30. The Rebels drove to the NIU 46 late in the game but turned the ball over on downs when sophomore wide receiver Devonte Boyd dropped a pass on 4th-and-9 at the Huskies’ 32-yard line.
“The good thing is our kids didn’t quit,” Sanchez, who coached nearby Bishop Gorman to a mythical high school national championship last year before taking over in December for Bobby Hauck, said. “They kept fighting their tails off and they gave us a chance to tie it up at the end. I’m proud of them for that but we definitely have some work to do. It’s a good football team and we’re going to keep getting better.
“There’s a lot (to build on),” Sanchez added. “But the one thing I want to make very clear is that there is nobody in that locker room that is into moral victories.”
UNLV, trying to win a season opener for the first time since 2007 at Utah State, rolled up 274 yards and 17 first downs en route to a 17-10 halftime lead.
The Rebels needed only seven plays to take a 7-0 lead as Decker connected with Boyd for a 64-yard touchdown on a streak up the left sideline on 3rd-and-11.
After the Huskies cut it to 7-3 on a 48-yard field goal by Christian Hagan, UNLV, which twice stopped the Huskies on fourth down plays inside the Rebel 40, reeled off 10 straight points as backup quarterback Kurt Palandech scored on a 18-yard run and Bornand connected on a 21-yard field goal to cap an impressive 85-yard, 13-play drive.
But Northern Illinois, which lost star wide receiver Tommylee Lewis to a leg injury on the first series, closed to 17-10 late in the half when Hare connected with tight end Shane Wimann for a 16-yard touchdown that seemed to swing the momentum back into the Huskies’ favor.
“Listen, that’s a good football team, (2-10 record) from last year or whatever,” Carey said. “Coach Sanchez has them playing hard, has them playing fast, has them playing physical, and they have some new schemes. So, yeah, I would have liked to not happen what happened in the first half but it did, and we responded.”
NOTES: UNLV finished with 493 yards in total offense, including 164 yards rushing. … Safety Peni Vea led the Rebels defensively with nine tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. … Sanchez is just the fifth man in the modern era of college football to move directly from being a high school head coach to being a head coach at an FBS school. The others were Jim Bradley (New Mexico State, 1973-77), Bob Cummings (Iowa, 1974-78), Gerry Faust (Notre Dame, 1981-85) and Todd Dodge (North Texas, 2007-10). Only Faust (30-26-1) finished with a winning record. … The Huskies are one of two teams (along with Oregon) to have won 11 or more games in each of the last five games. … Northern Illinois improved to 5-0 all-time against the Rebels. … UNLV returns to action on Saturday night when it hosts UCLA, an impressive 34-16 winner over Virginia in its opener, at Sam Boyd Stadium at 7:30 p.m.