Friday, December 13, 2002
UNLV 31, Arkansas 14
LAS VEGAS -- The Rose Bowl, it wasn't. To John Robinson, though, it was almost as sweet.
Two years after he arrived in this gambling town to take over a hapless bunch of losers, Robinson's UNLV Rebels beat Arkansas 31-14 on Thursday night in the hometown Las Vegas Bowl.
Fans who didn't go near the UNLV stadium when the team was in the midst of a 16-game losing streak tore down a goalpost as UNLV celebrated its turnaround in two seasons under Robinson.
"I'm not the guy who did this," Robinson said, pointing to his players. "It's them."
In particular it was Jason Thomas, the sophomore transfer from Robinson's former school, USC, who picked apart the Arkansas defense and softened it enough to allow UNLV's running backs to romp for 259 yards.
Thomas threw two touchdown passes to Nate Turner to keep UNLV in the game in the first half, then put the Rebels ahead for good with a 54-yard touchdown strike to Troy Mason with 2:21 left in the third quarter.
"Me and JT (Thomas) had been talking about this all week," Turner said. "We tried to hit them deep and fortunately we got some deep pass plays off."
It was the first bowl appearance for UNLV since it won the same bowl in 1994, and the first for Robinson since USC beat Northwestern five years ago in the Rose Bowl.
Unlike the Rose Bowl, the 9-year-old Las Vegas Bowl barely registers in the postseason picture. But to a team that went 0-11 the year before Robinson took over, beating Arkansas to finish the season 8-5 was reason enough to celebrate.
UNLV ended its season by winning its last four games, and was undefeated in six games at home.
"We couldn't get any momentum," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "They hit the home run ball and that put us behind the 8-ball."
Arkansas (6-6), which had not allowed an offensive touchdown in nine consecutive quarters, could not contain Thomas, who passed with precision despite throwing the ball only sparingly.
Thomas completed 12 of 17 passes for 217 yards and three touchdowns, and UNLV's small but speedy running backs romped through big holes in the Arkansas defense in the second half.
"They took over the second half," Arkansas quarterback Robby Hampton said. They had dangerous backs and created big holes in our line."
Two of the touchdowns went to Turner in the first half, including a 5-yard toss that tied the game with 3:12 left in the half. Turner had all eight of his catches in the first half for 126 yards.
"I thought we could do some things we were preparing for," Thomas said. "I thought I could throw deep to Nate."
UNLV's defense, meanwhile, allowed a touchdown on the opening drive and another in the second quarter but stiffened in the second half, when it did not give up a point. Robby Hampton threw for two first-half touchdown passes for Arkansas, but was largely ineffective in the second half.
The game was tied 14-14 at halftime, and Arkansas had a chance to take the lead on its first possession of the second half when UNLV muffed a punt snap and Arkansas took over on the Rebels' 30.
UNLV's defense was up to the challenge, however, and after Arkansas missed a 29-yard field goal with 9:33 left in the third quarter, the Razorbacks never threatened again.
A crowd of 25,868 -- a record for the Las Vegas Bowl -- showed up to cheer a hometown team that Robinson took from 0-11 two years ago to 3-8 in his first year. UNLV was 4-5 at one point this season, but ended up winning its last four games.
Arkansas, which was also 4-5 before finishing with two wins over ranked opponents, had been happy to get into a bowl. But the estimated 4,000 fans who traveled with the team to Las Vegas could only watch in stunned silence as UNLV took over the game in the second half.
Arkansas' streak of consecutive quarters without allowing an offensive touchdown ended early in the second quarter when Thomas found Turner falling away in the corner of the end zone for a 19-yard touchdown play that tied it at 7.
|Nate Turner caught two TD passes in the Las Vegas Bowl.|