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July 25, 2014

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Missed opportunities leave behind a stinging defeat in UNLV vs. Utah State

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Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun

UNLV defensive back Kenneth Penny collides with Frank Crawford while covering Utah State wide receiver Travis Reynolds during their game Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013 at Sam Boyd Stadium. Crawford injured his right knee on the play.

UNLV vs. Utah State Football

UNLV defensive back Frank Crawford winces in pain after injuring his knee on a play agasint Utah State during their game Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013 at Sam Boyd Stadium. Launch slideshow »

The split second Caleb Herring released his 39th and final pass attempt of the night, the game was over. Despite needing to do something — anything — to get a first down or touchdown in the waning seconds against Utah State, UNLV’s senior quarterback sailed that throw well over Devante Davis’ head in the end zone.

You’re probably not as interested in the more subtle explanations for UNLV’s 28-24 loss to Utah State (6-4, 5-1) tonight. Something like the depleted defense that trotted out nearly a majority of second-stringers on the Aggies’ go-ahead touchdown drive.

Because while that matters, it takes a back seat to the reasons screaming in your face, such as a fake field goal in the second quarter or the game management in the final minute. The Rebels’ blown opportunities could have filled the empty seats at Sam Boyd Stadium, of which there were plenty.

“We had it and let it go,” said senior running back Tim Cornett, who finished with 115 yards and a score.

The announced crowd of 15,062 couldn’t forget that fake field goal during the Rebels’ final drive. Obviously things wouldn’t play out the exact same way, but had UNLV (5-5, 3-3) taken the three points from a chip shot field goal then it may have needed only another one of those at the end to clinch bowl eligibility for the first time since 2000.

Instead, UNLV coach Bobby Hauck dialed up a designed run to the right side for senior kicker Nolan Kohorst, who was tackled for an 11-yard loss.

“It was probably an 80 percenter,” said Hauck, who emphasized he didn’t regret the call.

Herring is the holder on kick attempts. He had a front-row seat to see the play develop, or flop as the case may be.

“If (Utah State’s Nevin Lawson) is not there to make that play,” Herring said, “Nolan walks into the end zone.”

But he was there, and the Aggies converted a 20-percenter.

“A play here and there that changes the fate of the game,” said senior defensive tackle Tyler Gaston.

The reason this defeat stings the same or even more than last week’s loss to San Jose State is that this time UNLV played like the better team pretty much the entire night. Of course, there were exceptions.

With a chance to go ahead by 10 early in the second half, Herring threw an interception in the end zone. While Utah State didn’t come right back and score, Lawson’s pick essentially took points off the board because, barring another fake attempt, Kohorst could have drilled a chip shot.

Despite coming in as a two-touchdown favorite, Utah State was very undisciplined at times. On its final drive before halftime the Aggies had multiple touchdowns called back for penalties and another penalty helped out the Rebels on their final drive of the game. Breaks like that will stick with the Rebels and their fans because of the team’s failure to take full advantage.

The Aggies caught some breaks, too. One of those negated touchdowns ended with Rebels safety Frank Crawford getting helped into the locker room with a knee injury. UNLV missed him and other defenders like linebacker Tau Lotulelei on Utah State’s fourth quarter go-ahead drive, during which the Aggies converted all three of their third-down attempts.

“Every starter is a starter for a reason,” Cornett said. “They give the team the best chance to win.”

Cornett was referring more to himself not wanting to come out of the game, but the point applies to the defense.

Aggies receiver Bruce Natson scampered into the end zone for that score out of the wildcat formation. That was his second rushing score of the game and he finished with 71 yards on nine carries.

“They gave us a heavier dose of that than we were expecting,” Hauck said.

The Rebels still had a chance, though it had to be a touchdown. After a penalty set UNLV up with first and 10 at Utah State’s 26-yard line with just under a minute left, that fake field goal was dancing around fans’ minds like a terribly catchy pop song you would do anything to forget. Herring said he never gave it a second thought because that’s simply not the way it works. The game was still in his hands.

UNLV mostly eschewed its three timeouts on offense and appeared to target a score above a first down. Herring did convert one first down, a third-down pass to Marcus Sullivan, but six of his other seven final passes all went to the end zone. Only one, also in Sullivan’s direction, seemed catchable.

Hauck said he didn’t regret anything about those final play calls. Asked about a screen pass, Hauck suggested that wouldn’t be a good call against the Aggies’ defense. And as far as underneath routes in general, that’s where Hauck said they planned to go with Herring’s final pass attempt on fourth down, the one that ended up sailing out of the end zone.

“We were trying to throw it to the slot,” he said. “I’m not sure if (the coverage) was legal or not.”

No penalty flag flew in to bail the Rebels out that time. That would have been one opportunity too many. UNLV needed to do more with the ones they already had to deserve it.

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