Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023 | 5:47 p.m.
Colorado Springs, Colo. —
Barry Odom said he knew it was going to come down to the final play.
Even when UNLV trailed in the second quarter, 24-7, he knew Saturday’s first-place showdown at Air Force would be decided in the final seconds.
And given the way the season has unfolded, with magic seeping through the team’s every pore, Odom probably had a good idea it was going to end well for his charmed Scarlet and Gray squad.
That’s exactly how it went down. Air Force’s final pass fell incomplete in the end zone with 22 seconds left, and UNLV had a 31-27 comeback win, sole possession of first place in the Mountain West, and the simplest of paths to hosting the conference championship game.
In short: The impossible season continues for UNLV.
“What a great performance by our kids,” Odom said after UNLV had successfully fended off Air Force at the goal line. “The toughness, the resolve, the resiliency, overcoming some penalties, overcoming adversity, staying in the arena. That’s what we’ve talked about since we got started. Let’s go 60 minutes, stay in the arena, play one play at a time. And tonight was a really great test of that.”
It was a long, uphill climb to conquer Air Force, an opponent that has routinely blown out UNLV in recent years.
After scoring on the second offensive play of the game via a 78-yard touchdown pass from Jayden Maiava to Ricky White, the Scarlet and Gray watched Air Force rack up 257 rushing yards in the first half and score 24 unanswered points. The Falcons eventual took a commanding 27-14 lead into the break.
UNLV tweaked its approach to run defense, and they did a better job of containing Air Force’s potent option attack for the final 30 minutes, allowing just 87 yards the rest of the way. All six of the Falcons’ second-half drives came up empty — though they got close at the end.
In a campaign now cluttered with heart-stopping finishes, there is a new entry atop the leaderboard after UNLV turned away Air Force four times in the final minute.
UNLV took possession with four minutes left, up by four points, but went 3-and-out and had to punt it back to the home team. Air Force then moved across midfield by converting a 4th-and-1, and a 21-yard pass over the middle brought the Falcons to the fringe of the red zone.
A pass interference penalty moved Air Force to the 10-yard line with less than a minute remaining, setting up a series of downs that UNLV had to scratch and claw to survive.
Handoffs on first and second down netted only two yards. A third-down pass attempt by Air Force quarterback Jensen Jones was batted down by UNLV linebacker Jackson Woodard with less than 30 seconds on the clock, bringing up the most pivotal play of the season.
After both teams took timeouts to talk it over, Air Force called on backup quarterback John Busha to attempt the fourth-down pass. He targeted tight end Caleb Rillos in the left corner of the end zone, but linebacker Fred Thompkins maintained tight enough coverage to force the throw long.
Woodard credited Thompkins for staying with his man on the deciding play.
“I’m so proud of that kid,” Woodard said. “One of the best guys you’ll ever meet. Hard worker. Just a ballplayer. All he does is come to practice, work hard with a smile on his face, cheering on the guys. He has such a big role on this team, especially on special teams, so to make that big play late in the game on defense was unbelievable. I’m so proud of him.”
UNLV kneeled out the closing seconds to improve to 9-2 on the season and 6-1 in Mountain West play. Odom’s crew is now alone in first place, with only a home game against San Jose State remaining on the schedule.
If UNLV wins that contest, the Scarlet and Gray will host the conference championship game the following week — a feat that would have seemed inconceivable before the year began, but now seems almost inevitable due to UNLV’s penchant for winning the close ones (now 3-1 in games decided by one possession).
Maiava committed two turnovers in the first half, but played with resolve on a day when the running game did not provide much support (80 yards on 23 carries by running backs). The redshirt freshman completed 15-of-29 passes for 339 yards and two touchdowns, and also notched UNLV’s longest run with a 34-yard scramble on the go-ahead drive in the third quarter.
White continued his march toward the UNLV record book, adding 169 receiving yards to his season tally. He is now 150 yards away from breaking the program record for receiving yards in a single season.
Ballungay got the comeback started early in the third quarter with an 84-yard catch-and-run down to the 1-yard line; UNLV scored a touchdown on the next play. Ballungay later caught the go-ahead touchdown, pulling in a 6-yard pass from Maiava with 2:55 left in the third quarter.
Ballungay said the offense was determined to get back into the game, knowing the defense would hold Air Force.
“[We were] playing with confidence, knowing the defense is going to have our back no matter what,” Ballungay said.
Now, after winning the biggest game in program history, Odom will have to get his team ready for an even more important clash with San Jose State on Saturday.
“It’s a great win, but within 30 minutes we’ve got to move past it and move on, because now the opportunity is bigger,” Odom said. “And how exciting to be able to play in Vegas at Allegiant. It should be an unbelievable environment.”