Lucas Peltier / UNLV athletics
Sunday, Oct. 29, 2023 | 12:39 a.m.
Fresno, Calif. —
The UNLV football team is winning for the first time in forever, and the optimism around the program has never been higher.
There’s something that comes along with heightened expectations, however. When hopes are raised, there’s a chance they can be dashed.
That’s what happened to UNLV on Saturday, as the Scarlet and Gray dropped an excruciating 31-24 decision at Fresno State in a showdown of Mountain West contenders. UNLV had two goal-line possessions in the final minutes with an opportunity to tie the score, but came up empty both times, including a game-sealing interception with three seconds remaining.
After falling to 3-1 in conference play and 6-2 overall, Barry Odom’s squad is feeling a specific type of pain that only hurts when you lose something that was within reach.
“This one stings, and it should when you invest into the process and you come up short,” Odom said. “You come up short in that fashion, it’s hard.”
UNLV cost itself several times over.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Jayden Maiava led a 2-minute drill that ended in a touchdown just before the half, allowing the underdog Scarlet and Gray to take a 17-7 lead into the locker room at the break. The defense then forced Fresno State into a 3-and-out to begin the second half, and all looked well for Odom’s road warriors.
Until return man Jacob De Jesus misplayed the punt, allowing the bouncing ball to carom off his leg and into the arms of a Fresno State player. Given possession deep in UNLV territory, the Bulldogs converted on third-and-goal with a 2-yard touchdown pass from Mikey Keene to Mac Dalena.
The rare special-teams error hurt, but UNLV still had a 17-14 lead — until the offense went 3-and-out and punted back to a suddenly hot Fresno offense. Keene drove the field, and on third-and-goal he lofted a 10-yard touchdown to Erik Brooks in the back of the end zone to give the Bulldogs a 21-17 advantage.
The downward spiral continued when Maiava tossed an interception on the next drive, again giving Fresno State great field position. The Bulldogs settled for a field goal and a seven-point lead.
Things went from bad to disaster on UNLV’s ensuing possession; on the first play of the drive, freshman running back Jai’Den Thomas took a handoff and fumbled. Fresno State recovered, and on 4th-and-goal Keene hit running back Malik Sherrod for a 3-yard score.
When the nightmare third quarter was finished, UNLV had committed three turnovers and allowed back-breaking touchdowns on two 3rd-and-goals and a 4th-and-goal. Fresno State outscored the visitors 24-0 in the period to take a 31-17 lead into the fourth quarter.
Senior running back Donavyn Lester said ball security was an issue in practice this week, and he was disappointed that it leaked into the biggest game UNLV has played in years.
“It’s not good enough,” Lester said. “We’ve got to do a better job during practice. You practice how you play, and unfortunately during practice we had a lot of turnovers, so that’s just something we’re going to have to continue to work on.”
Maiava tossed a 15-yard touchdown pass to junior receiver Ricky White to trim the deficit to 31-24 with 12:22 remaining, and UNLV had hope again.
When junior cornerback Cameron Oliver stepped in front of a slant and intercepted Keene on the first play of Fresno’s ensuing drive, the entire sideline believed UNLV was headed for another comeback win. Maiava and the offense drove inside the 5-yard line, setting up a 1st-and-goal with an opportunity to tie the score.
It seemed like a foregone conclusion, since UNLV came into the game tied for second in the nation with 22 rushing touchdowns on the season. But Fresno State stuffed three straight running plays, and on fourth down Maiava rolled out but couldn’t find an open receiver, firing incomplete in the back corner of the end zone.
Odom was as surprised as anyone that UNLV was unable to finish the drive.
“Offensively we felt good about what we had with four downs there, and we didn’t execute,” he said. “Give credit to Fresno, they did a nice job. They were really physical on the line of scrimmage and had some penetration.”
Still, the game wasn’t over. Fresno State took over at its 1-yard line and played it safe, handing off three times and punting back to midfield with 2:33 on the clock. Given that Maiava has led two last-second game-winning drives in his young career, the Scarlet and Gray once again liked their chances.
Maiava hit Kaleo Ballungay on a 4th-and-6 to get the drive going, then he connected with White for 19 yards; White stepped out of bounds at the Fresno State 8-yard line with 19 seconds left, setting up another goal-to-go situation.
On second down, Maiava lofted a pass to Senika McKie, who had broken wide open in the left side of the end zone. McKie, a senior known for highlight-reel grabs, was unable to secure the easiest catch of his career, as the ball slipped through his hands and off his helmet, falling to the ground incomplete with seven seconds remaining.
Maiava was intercepted on the next play, ending the game and delivering a dose of heartache to a team that had become accustomed to pulling out the close ones.
“Third time we got an opportunity to win it right there at the end of the game, and we came up short tonight,” Odom said. “We’ve got good toughness. We’ve got resolve about ourselves. It’s gut-wrenching to lose one there when we had opportunities.”
Maiava finished 21-of-35 for 268 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, while White caught seven balls for 152 yards and two TDs. The running game, which has powered the UNLV offense for most of the year, was unable to get going against Fresno State, with just 156 yards on 43 attempts (3.6 yards per carry).
UNLV out-gained Fresno State by more than a hundred yards (424 to 312), but the four turnovers were too much to overcome.
The Scarlet and Gray are still positioned for a run at the Mountain West title game, now tied with Fresno State and Boise State for second place at 3-1. But they’re feeling an unfamiliar hurt after letting one slip away.
“We shot ourselves in the foot today,” Lester said. “The only person that stopped us from winning today was us. We had it.”