UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said he had one simple message for his team after it snapped a three-game losing streak with a 26-16 upset of Fresno State last week.
“The biggest message during the week was does winning make your more satisfied or does it make you more hungry?” Sanchez said.
Turns out the Rebels were in the mood for a little pineapple.
Playing for the new Island Showdown Trophy sponsored by the California Hotel, UNLV made it two straight Mountain West wins for the first time since 2013 on Saturday by holding off Hawaii, 31-23, at Sam Boyd Stadium.
The victory not only gave UNLV (4-5, 3-3 Mountain West) possession of the Golden Pineapple but also put the Rebels back on track for their second bowl game in five years. UNLV, which hosts struggling BYU (2-7 going into Saturday night’s game at Fresno State) on Friday night, must win two of its final three games to garner the required six wins to become bowl eligible. The Rebels finish the season with back-to-back road games at New Mexico (3-6, 1-5) and woeful Nevada (1-8, 1-4).
Hawaii (3-6, 1-5) made it interesting at the end, driving to the UNLV 23 with seven seconds to go. But quarterback Dru Brown, unpressured by a three-man Rebel pass rush and seemingly with all day to pass, overthrew an open Keelan Ewaliko crossing the middle of the end zone on the final play of the game.
“We talked about finishing,” Sanchez said. “We’ve been challenged about it in a lot of different ways. We’ve learned to finish. That’s a big thing.”
WHO STOOD OUT: For the second straight week senior quarterback Johnny Stanton came up big, completing 18-of-26 passes for 244 yards and two touchdowns and no interceptions while also rushing for 27 yards and another TD. Not bad for a guy who was banished to linebacker and special teams a few weeks earlier this season because the team decided to go with talented freshman Armani Rogers at QB. Stanton is 35-for-51 (68.6 percent) for 399 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions and has also rushed for two more scores in two starts since Rogers went down with a concussion.
KEY PLAY: After Hawaii was flagged for a 15-yard personal foul penalty for “leverage” on UNLV’s PAT that increased the Rebels’ lead to 21-13, Sanchez decided to go for an onside kick from midfield. It worked as wide receiver Darren Woods recovered on the Hawaii 35. Three plays later, Lexington Thomas scored on a 3-yard run around left end to extended the Rebels’ advantage to 28-13 with 23 seconds to go in the third quarter.
QUOTES TO NOTE:
“Here’s my philosophy on onside kicks. A lot of times they line up on the 50 and they kick it in the end zone. To me it’s a wasted play because if you don’t get it, they get it at the 35. So if my gamble is a chance for a possession or to give them the ball at the 35, I’m going to take that risk 100 percent of the time.” – UNLV coach Tony Sanchez
“We appreciated the confidence the coaches had in us, especially that onside kick. When we got that ball back we knew we were going to score.” – UNLV quarterback Johnny Stanton
UP NEXT:The Rebels play their final home game of the season on Friday night when they host BYU at 7:30 p.m. The contest will be televised by ESPN2.
NOTABLE: UNLV and Hawaii both finished with 23 first downs and 131 yards rushing. The Rebels finished with a 412 to 400 edge in total yards. … The Rebels equaled their 2016 win total with their fourth victory of the season. It marked just the third time in eight seasons that UNLV won as many as four games in a season. … UNLV has won five straight games against Hawaii at Sam Boyd Stadium. … Thomas finished with 98 yards in 24 carries to go over the 1,000-yard mark (1,063). … Thomas’ TD run gave him 25 for his career, tying Mack Gilchrist (1968-71) for third on the school’s all-time list. … Hawaii dropped to 9-37 all-time in Mountain West regular season games, including 4-19 on the road. … Rogers, who played the second quarter, finished 2-of-5 for 37 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.
Click on graphic below for final stats: