The speech may have been invigorating, but it wasn’t unconventional.
With his team heading to overtime against rival UNR Saturday afternoon at Mackay Stadium, UNLV coach Tony Sanchez opted to spread the same message he shared with his players all week. The fifth-year coach may have used a few different analogies to illustrate his point, but ever since the announcement of his firing effective at the end of the season on Monday, the theme was constant.
“Let’s go out on our terms,” Sanchez said one last time with his players huddled around him on the sidelines in the sub-freezing temperature.
Less than 10 minutes and only seven plays later, UNLV freshman quarterback Kenyon Oblad found wide-open freshman receiver Steve Jenkins for a 19-yard game-winning touchdown. UNLV 33, UNR 30.
The score ensured this year’s Rebels would be the program’s first team since 2004 to beat the archrival Wolf Pack in consecutive years and keep the Fremont Cannon red.
“Coach Sanchez was our attitude and effort,” junior running back Charles Williams said. “He said all week, ‘Don’t let someone take your joy away from you.’ We went out there and practiced hard and came out with the same energy we had for the San Jose State win and just finished this thing off.”
UNLV closed out Sanchez’s final season on a two-game winning streak, but with only a 4-8 overall record to make the coach’s career mark 20-40 with the Rebels. He won the most important game more often that he lost it, though.
If Sanchez is remembered for anything on the field, it will be beating the Wolf Pack three out of five times. And he had a flair for the dramatic in all the victories.
Each of the three wins came by less than seven points. Last year, Sanchez had to lead a massive comeback against UNR. This year, he had to prevent falling victim to one as UNLV went up 17-0 in the first quarter and never trailed in regulation but allowed UNR to creep back into the game.
“We played really hard, but as the game went on, (UNR) made some plays,” Sanchez said. “They’re a good team, but we jumped out because of our preparation.”
Coaching changes and program turmoil can sometimes cause teams to check out prematurely. Even before the game started, however, it was evident that wasn’t the case with the Rebels.
They brought immense energy from the moment warmups started, with the whole roster flying around the field and at least one player running through the end zone shirtless despite a snowstorm in the immediate forecast.
UNLV heated up as soon as the game started, driving down for a 40-yard field goal from Daniel Gutierrez on its initial drive. The Rebels scored in one play on their next possession, with left guard Julio Garcia and left tackle Matt Brayton prying open a hole the size of a Sierra Nevada mountain for Williams to go 80 yards untouched.
“Then they started loading the box,” Williams said, “so we went over the top.”
Oblad hit sophomore receiver Mekhi Stevenson in stride on a seam route before the end of the first quarter, allowing UNLV go 3-for-3 on scoring drives before UNR got on the board. Near the end of the second quarter, Oblad completed the longest pass of his career on a 75-yard touchdown strike to Jenkins to put the Rebels up 24-13.
Oblad had arguably his best collegiate game, as apart from a couple near-interceptions late in the regulation after UNR tied it up, he kept on target.
“I think this was one of our best team wins, but myself? I don’t know,” Oblad said. “Hopefully I can keep stacking games like this and we can keep winning.”
The next coach will certainly like what he sees from his top returning skill players when reviewing Saturday’s film.
Oblad finished with 232 yards and three touchdowns after completing 16 of his 22 passing attempts. Williams had 138 yards on 20 carries. Jenkins was the real revelation, as he was forced to emerge against UNR with the pass-catching corps decimated by injuries and the unexpected suspension of leading receiver Randal Grimes for violating university rules.
Jenkins responded with five catches for 140 yards and two touchdowns.
“Our program has a global look right now,” Sanchez said. “Unfortunately the wins aren’t there like we want them to be but the needle’s been moved the right direction in all areas.”
Even the Rebels’ much-maligned defense, which finishes the year ranked near the bottom of the nation by most metrics, made plays when it mattered. The unit gave up a career-high 351 passing yards to UNR freshman quarterback Carson Strong, but none of them came in overtime.
The Wolf Pack gained no yards after regulation with the Rebels holding strong for three plays to force the home team to kick a 42-yard field goal to go up 30-27.
Like most of the season, seniors Jericho Flowers and Javin White led the defensive charge. Flowers took his lumps against UNR No. 1 receiver Elijah Cooks, who had 12 catches for 151 yards, but notched two crucial pass breakups. The first came in the end zone to take away a touchdown in the first quarter and then Flowers prevented a long completion down the sideline in the fourth quarter.
White, meanwhile, notched a sack to force the overtime and also stymied a fourth-down attempt earlier in the fourth quarter with blitz pressure.
“I’ve given my whole body to this university and to this football team,” White said. “For us to go out victorious, even though the season didn’t go the way we wanted, this is our Super Bowl. We just won the Super Bowl and I’m going to enjoy this for as long as I can.”
UNLV’s celebration was temporarily cut into with a brawl after Jenkins scored the game-winning touchdown. UNR junior safety Austin Arnold, a Las Vegas native, blindsided Oblad with a hit while the quarterback’s teammates ran down the home sidelines in excitement.
That sparked pushing and shoving that inched towards the back of the end zone where fans threw snowballs and bottles at UNLV players and staff. No one, including Oblad, reported any injuries.
“It’s a gnarly rivalry,” Sanchez said. “Any time you go into that end of the end zone, there’s a chance something bad will happen. It’s really unfortunate.”
Sanchez helped break up the ruckus, and it wasn’t long before the Rebels got back to enjoying the moment. Players ushered in and out of the locker room entrance posing with photos with the cannon and embracing Sanchez.
In an already-broken season, the Rebels continued to buy in to what Sanchez preached and at least got one prize to show for it.
“Coach Sanchez always says, ‘Put all your chips in,’” White said. “I for sure gave all my chips. I think everyone put all their chips in, and this is the result we got — a jackpot.”