Rebels break long winless drought in 31-17 victory over New Mexico

Photo: Andres Leighton/AP Photo

It’s been 706 days since UNLV won its last football game. 

But the drought is now over.

The Rebels put together the pieces as they won their first game under Marcus Arroyo, 31-17 Saturday night against the New Mexico Lobos. 

“I’m proud of these guys and the coaches and the staff for hanging in there,” head coach Marcus Arroyo said to the media after the win. “I’ve said it since the jump, just hanging in there when things aren’t going your way, it says a lot about you, your character, about a team, about a program, an identity for everybody.”

UNLV was coming off a stretch where they lost four of its last five games by one possession, before the blowout loss to UNR last week. In total, the Rebels had five of its eight losses by one possession. 

The Rebels were able to capitalize on some Lobo mistakes and made several big plays on both sides of the ball to snap the 14-game winless streak. 

Early on it appeared that UNLV was going to be in a long battle with New Mexico as the Lobos marched down the field on the opening drive of the game on 10 plays for 91 yards in 5:50 to jump out to an early 7-0 lead, with three of those plays going for 20+ yards.

UNLV went three and out on its first two drives and were not able to effectively move the ball. But New Mexico fumbled when UNLV sacked QB Isaiah Chavez and the Rebels recovered inside the five-yard line. 

A play later UNLV RB Charles Williams ran it from four yards out for a touchdown, tying the game 7-7. 

Chaves came up limping after the fumble but he returned after UNLV scored. But Chaves coughed up the ball again, giving UNLV the ball in New Mexico territory again, Chaves then left the game for good after his second fumble. 

The Rebels capitalized on the Lobo fumble when Cameron Friel connected with WR Marcus Phillips Jr. for a 15-yard touchdown, giving UNLV the lead on Phillips Jr.’s first career touchdown. 

The Rebels’ lead was short lived as New Mexico RB Bobby Cole ran for a 75-yard touchdown, tying the game 14-14. 

But the Rebels struck back on the ensuing drive when Friel hit WR Kyle Williams on a beautiful 75-yard touchdown pass. UNLV had the lead back, 21-14, and never looked back. 

Leading 24-17 in the fourth quarter, Friel found Kyle Williams, who made an outstanding 22-yard catch that set the Rebels up with first and goal from the one-yard line. Charles Williams punched it in on the next play, giving UNLV its 31-17 lead, which would be the final score. 

While it wasn’t perfect, it was UNLV’s most complete performance of the season. The Rebels out gained the Lobos in total yards (304-296), but they also only committed one penalty. They were very effective on third down (8 of 16) and were plus one in the turnover margin (3-2).

“We finished that tonight and we have a lot to clean up, there’s a lot left out there,” Arroyo said. “It’s exciting because when you can get a win and go home and coach hard, that’s a good deal.”

Not only was it the Rebels first win, but running back Charles Williams became the school’s all-time leading rusher. With his 74 rushing yards, Williams passed Tim Cornett to become UNLV’s all time leading rusher. 

“It’s good setting the record,” Charles Williams told reporters after the win. “Shout out to Lexington Thomas and Tim Cornett, they’ve been pushing me to go break the record since the season started. It was a good feeling, but I really wanted to secure that win, that was the most important thing and main priority on my mind.” 

Charles Williams was one of the seniors who came back and took advantage of the extra year of eligibility due to the COVID-19 year in 2020. Arroyo said it was important to get those guys a win and spoke highly of Williams for sticking with the program. 

“He’s stayed the course, he’s taken constructive criticism,” Arroyo said of Charles Williams. “When a guy gets older, and you can coach him hard and you can take criticism, it says a lot about him… He’s been resilient, he’s stayed in there and I’m proud of him.”

Friel completed 20 of 33 passes for 227 yards and 2 touchdown passes, and despite having an interception, Friel was not sacked. Kyle Williams led the receivers with 137 yards and a touchdown on seven catches. 

Defensively, the Rebels got in the backfield often, coming up with 11 tackles for loss and 8 sacks. Jacoby Windmon led the way with 12 total tackles and a sack and Brennon Scott had a standout performance with 2 tackles for loss and 2 sacks. 

UNLV had come up close in many of its games this season, and its chances of getting a win this season were decreasing as the season went on and the competition got tougher. But with all the pressure of trying to get the first win, the Rebels did not let it break them as they pulled out the road win at New Mexico.

“It’s a lot tougher to go back to work everyday when things aren’t going your way, but that says a lot about our team, our group, our program and where they are heading,” Arroyo said. “We’ve got more.”

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