It took five games in Mountain West Conference play, but Fresno State found itself in a football game, in tight, needing to execute, needing to make plays.
It was UNLV, of all teams. The Rebels had just two wins, had struggled defensively all season and were without their starting quarterback because of injury. UNLV had to go with backup Johnny Stanton, who of all things had played the past two games at linebacker.
And it was the Bulldogs who cracked first, and more often. A fumble on a mishandled punt by KeeSean Johnson late in the third quarter and with the score tied led to a UNLV touchdown and Fresno State continued to self-destruct in a 26-16 loss to the Rebels on Saturday before 27,922 at Bulldog Stadium.
“I think we just got outplayed,” quarterback Marcus McMaryion said. “Credit to UNLV. They came in. They played and did their job. They made plays when they needed to make plays and we didn’t, myself included.
“When you’re playing good teams stuff like that and close games, you can’t shoot yourself in the foot. I mean, I think a lot of plays out there we kind of beat ourselves. Obviously, UNLV played good, but we did leave a lot of stuff out there.”
After the turnover, UNLV took over at the Bulldogs 23-yard line. It took four plays for the Rebels to take a 23-16 lead, with running back Lexington Thomas eluding two potential tackles for loss and scoring from 2 yards out.
The Bulldogs (5-3, 4-1) couldn’t answer, as a dropped pass and a costly holding penalty that wiped out a 24-yard pass play to tight end David Tangipa played large in stalling their shot to tie the score.
On their next series, Fresno State lined up to try for a first down on a fourth-and-2 from the UNLV 45 with 7:41 to go. Coach Jeff Tedford took a timeout to consider the options and sent out the punt team.
There was plenty of time to get a stop, get the football back and get a score. But the snap went over the head of punter Blake Cusick for a 36-yard loss to the Bulldogs 19.
UNLV ended up kicking a field goal, and it was a two-score game with 5 minutes to go.
“I would say all three phases didn’t play very well,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “It was a total team loss. Special teams, obviously, fumbling a punt return, having a snap go over our head. Those are key, if you’re talking about special teams.
“But defensively, we couldn’t get off the field and they controlled the football. We didn’t capitalize or convert third downs when we needed to, to stay on the field. We didn’t play very well in any phase of the game.”
UNLV (3-5, 2-3) made just about ever miscue hurt, in some way.
Fresno State allowed only 328 yards in the game, 148 in the second half. It allowed only 4.5 yards per play. But UNLV converted 5 of 15 third downs and 2 of 2 on fourth down and limited big plays by the Bulldogs’ offense. And the Rebels made far fewer critical errors.
The Bulldogs’ defense – which had not allowed a touchdown in nine quarters or an opponent to rack up 200 yards in a half in nine halves of football – was up against it through much of the first two quarters but kept them in it.
UNLV moved the football, everywhere except once in the red zone.
The Rebels stuck a toe inside the Bulldogs 20 on their first drive, but when lining up on a fourth-and-1 from the 16-yard line, Thomas moved before the snap. The 5-yard penalty moved them to the 21, and they kicked a field goal.
UNLV was there twice in the second quarter, settling for 27-and 23-yard field goals by Daniel Gutierrez.
On the second of those red-zone trips, they had two chances at putting an end to the Bulldogs’ run of touchdown-less quarters.
Cornerback Jaron Bryant was flagged for pass interference on third-and-goal from the 3-yard line, giving UNLV a fresh set of downs from the 2.
But on first down, defensive end Tobenna Okeke hit running back Xzavi Campbell for a 2-yard loss and on second down from the 4 defensive end Robert Stanley busted up Stanton on an option to the right for a 2-yard loss.
On third down, Stanton couldn’t connect with wideout Kendal Keys.
UNLV had 180 yards of offense in the first half, averaging 5.9 yards per play outside the red zone and just 1.7 yards inside the 20.
That didn’t last long into the second half, the Rebels taking the opening kickoff 75 yards in 11 plays for a 16-9 lead on a 7-yard run by Stanton.
Fresno State had not allowed a score on an opening drive in the first or second half in Mountain West play, but gave up a field goal and a touchdown against the Rebels.
“Give them a lot of credit, they did a good job,” Tedford said. “Their quarterback made a lot of good throws to convert third downs right at the sticks and their running back played a great game. He’s a real hard guy to tackle and we didn’t tackle very well. It’s a total team (loss).”
Robert Kuwada: @rkuwada
BRIGHAM YOUNG AT FRESNO STATE
- Saturday: 7:45 p.m. at Bulldog Stadium (41,031)
- Records: Bulldogs 5-3, Cougars 2-7
- TV/radio: ESPN2/KFIG (AM 940), KGST (AM 1600)
- Of note: BYU snapped a seven-game losing streak with a 41-20 victory on Saturday over a San Jose State team that is now 1-8 and has lost its road games by an average of 30.8 points. … The Cougars have struggled on offense all season and went into that game against the Spartans averaging just 12.1 points per game, 128th in the nation. The 41 points were a season high and more than they had in their past three games combined – they scored 7, 10 and 17 points in losses to Boise State, at Mississippi State and at East Carolina. … BYU has struggled in particular trying to rush the football. It averaged more than 200 yards a game on the ground last season, but in their first eight games averaged only 89.6 yards per game and had just three rushing touchdowns. The Cougars rushed for 266 yards in beating San Jose State, nothing out of the ordinary for Spartans’ opponents. San Jose State had allowed 278.3 rushing yards per game, ranking 128th in the nation. It also had allowed 26 rushing touchdowns, ranking 129th.