Winning three games in a season normally isn’t reason for a college football team to celebrate. But as any long-suffering UNLV football fan can tell you, it’s a sign of progress for the Rebels.
UNLV (3-6, 2-3) hit the three-win mark for only the fourth time in 12 seasons and second time in six years on Saturday afternoon with a convincing 41-21 homecoming victory over Hawaii at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Senior quarterback Blake Decker passed for two touchdowns and senior Keith Whitely and freshman Lexington Thomas each eclipsed the 100-yard rushing plateau as UNLV amassed 547 yards in total offense, including 289 rushing, while also keeping their slim bowl hopes alive for another week.
Decker, listed as questionable early in the week with a sore right shoulder, completed 15-of-24 passes for 258 yards, including scoring passes of 85 yards to senior wide receiver Aaron Criswell and 75 yards to sophomore receiver Devonte Boyd, the latter which gave UNLV a 24-14 lead in the third quarter and proved to be the game-winner.
The hard-running Whitely broke the 100-yard barrier for the first time in his career, finishing with 124 yards on 21 carries, including a 7-yard TD run for the final score of the game, while Thomas added 120 yards on 17 carries, including 3-yard scoring run midway through the fourth quarter that increased the Rebels’ lead to 34-21 and pretty much sealed the victory.
“I’m really excited for our guys,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said. “That’s a big deal to win at homecoming, especially for our seniors.”
And the win also gave Sanchez a nice addition to his recruiting pitch. UNLV won just two games eight times in the last 11 seasons, including a dreadful 2-11 finish in 2014 that sent Bobby Hauck packing. Now Sanchez can show recruits that it really is a new era of Rebel football.
“To get to that elusive number three … it seems like we’ve been hanging around in search of it and getting close to it for a long, long time,” Sanchez said. “That’s a benchmark. It’s not the goal by any means but (this year’s team) has made us better, and now we can show it on paper.
“We’re 50 percent better than we’ve been in eight of the last 11 years. That’s a big deal. That number three has been kind of an elusive benchmark.”
UNLV really could make it a November to remember by finishing out with wins at Colorado State (4-5) on Saturday, against San Diego State (6-3) in the home finale on Nov. 21 and at woeful Wyoming (1-9) on Nov. 28. That would give the Rebels a 6-6 record and a rare bowl trip.
But lets not get too far ahead of ourselves. Three wins – it very easily could be five with better finishes against San Jose State and Fresno State – signals a pretty dramatic turnaround under Sanchez.
“I’m excited about the guts of these kids and I’m extremely proud of them,” Sanchez said.
GAME NOTES: Hawaii was coached for the first time by former NFL lineman and consensus All-American Chris Naeole, who is taking over on an interim basis for Norm Chow, who was fired last Sunday following a 58-7 home loss to Air Force. Chow was 10-36 in four seasons with the Rainbow Warriors. … Junior Paul Harris rushed for a season-high 190 yards and a touchdown and junior running back Melvin Davis added scoring runs of 1 and 3 yards for Hawaii (2-8, 0-6), which dropped its seventh straight game. The Rainbow Warriors, who had rushed for 32 yards combined in their two previous games, finished with 378 total yards, including 191 rushing. … UNLV, which entered the day tied with Florida State for the national lead for fewest fumbles lost with one, quickly doubled that total when Decker coughed up the ball on the Rebels’ second possession. … The 85-yard touchdown pass from Decker to Criswell was the second longest in UNLV history behind only an 87-yarder from Carlton Kelley to Henry Vereen in 1977 against Northern Arizona.