The UNLV Rebels saw their hopes and dreams of a Mountain West championship fading before their eyes on Saturday.
The Rebels were down 24-7 to the Air Force Falcons with a little more than a half of football to play.
“We played with an edge coming out after halftime,” UNLV tight end Kaleo Ballungay said, “and we got the job done, for sure.”
Ballungay, a 6-foot-6 junior from Tracy, Calif., caught an 84-yard pass on the second play of the second half and the Rebels were off and running.
UNLV shut out the Falcons in the second half on the way to a program-defining 31-27 victory in front of 23,574 stunned Air Force fans at Colorado Springs, Colo.
“Just genuine happiness,” Ballungay said.
UNLV, the No. 1 team in this week’s Nevada Appeal Mountain West football rankings, is now 9-2 overall and on top of the conference at 6-1 with one game to play.
“This is the moment you dream of,” said UNLV linebacker Jackson Woodard, who played three seasons at Arkansas before coming to the Rebels this season. “You play football as a kid dreaming of making plays at the end. This is what we worked for.”
A victory over San Jose State this Saturday will make the Rebels the host team in the Mountain West championship game on Dec. 2.
“What a great performance by our kids,” first-year UNLV coach Barry Odom said. “The way they responded, the toughness, the resolve, overcoming adversity. This was a really good test of that.”
UNLV scored on a 1-yard run by Donavyn Lester, a 6-yard pass from Jayden Maiava to Ballungay and a 39-yard field goal by Jose Pizano in the second half to beat Air Force.
An Air Force pass from the UNLV 8-yard line fell incomplete with 23 seconds to play to secure the Rebel victory.
“I said a quick prayer before that play,” Ballungay said.
No. 2 Air Force (8-3, 5-2), which has suffered a number of injuries over recent weeks, has lost three games in a row.
“College football is crazy,” Air Force linebacker Johnathan Youngblood said. “We just have to put this behind us.”
“They spilled their heart,” Air Force coach Troy Calhoun said of his team. “But the other team played better than we did.”
No. 3 Fresno State (8-3, 4-3) was stunned by No. 9 New Mexico, 25-17 at Fresno. New Mexico ran for 345 yards on 51 carries, led by Jacory Croskey-Merritt’s 204 yards and two touchdowns.
Fresno State jumped out to a 14-3 lead. Logan Fife started at quarterback for the Bulldogs because regular starter Mikey Keene suffered a concussion the week before. Fife was 9-of-16 for 125 yards and Keene, who played the final eight minutes, was 8-of-13 for 58 yards.
Fresno State rushed for just 47 yards on 22 carries.
“I apologize to the fans for that performance,” Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford said. “I’ve never seen us play that poorly. We couldn’t get anything going, we couldn’t tackle. We’re all responsible, the coaches and the players, for this.”
No. 4 Boise State (6-5, 5-2), which fired head coach Andy Avalos earlier in the week, rolled over No. 7 Utah State, 45-10. The Broncos scored 31 points in the second quarter after Utah State took a 10-0 lead.
George Holani rushed for 178 yards and scored on runs of 75 and 33 yards to lead the Broncos. Matt Lauter caught touchdown passes of 26 and two yards from Taylen Green.
“I’m going to fight back the tears,” said Boise State interim head coach (and defensive coordinator) Spencer Danielson. “This group of young men, they didn’t blink this week. They just told me, ‘Coach, we got your back.’
“I can tell you that I am impacted more by these young men than I impacted them.”
No. 5 San Jose State (6-5, 5-2) also remained in the running for a spot in the conference title game by beating No. 12 San Diego State, 24-13.
“What an incredible night,” San Jose State coach Brent Brennan said. “This is huge for Spartan football.”
San Jose State, which lost five of its first six games this year, got touchdown runs by Quali Conley (20 yards) and Kairee Robinson (five yards) in the second half to beat the Aztecs. Conley had 155 yards on just 13 carries.
The touchdown was the 16th of Robinson’s career, setting a San Jose State school record. Quarterback Chevan Cordeiro was an efficient 15-of-20 for 174 yards and a touchdown.
“The locker room, the hugs, the tears,” Brennan said. “It was fantastic. All we wanted (after the 1-5 start) was to play meaningful games in the month of November and we have that.”
San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke announced his retirement earlier in the week. The Aztecs have lost eight of their last nine games and will not play in a bowl game this year for just the second time (along with the 2020 pandemic season) since 2009.
No. 6 Wyoming, which will play at Nevada this Saturday, trounced No. 11 Hawaii, 42-9. The Cowboys led 35-0 at the half mainly on the strength of big plays. Quarterback Andrew Peasley tossed touchdown pass of 44 (Ryan Marquez), 89 (John Michael Gyllenborg) and 40 yards (Wyatt Wieland) to build the huge lead.
Peasley was 14-of-17 for 319 yards and three scores.
No. 8 Colorado State (5-6, 3-4) outlasted No. 10 Nevada, 30-20, at Fort Collins, Colo. Colorado State got a 38-yard touchdown pass from Brayden Fowler-Nicolosi to Louis Brown IV from 38 yards out with 10:44 to play to put the game out of reach.
Nevada’s Brandon Talton missed a 43-yard field goal earlier in the fourth quarter that would have tied the game, 23-23.
“It was a strange game,” Colorado State head coach Jay Norvell said. “We missed a lot of big plays. Brayden was just a little off.”
Norvell said the emotions of playing a team he used to coach definitely played a part in the game.
“They (Nevada’s coaching staff) didn’t want their guys talking to me,” Norvell said. “I get it. But I congratulated a lot of our seniors (after their final home game) and there were just as many seniors over there (on Nevada’s roster) that I also knew and was glad to let them know how much I care about them, too.”
Norvell’s Rams need to beat Hawaii this Saturday to become bowl eligible.
“Our players are starting to develop some competitive stamina,” Norvell said.
The Nevada Appeal Mountain West football rankings for the week of Nov. 20:
1. UNLV (9-2, 6-1). Last week: UNLV 31, Air Force 27. This week: San Jose State at UNLV, Saturday.
2. AIR FORCE (8-3, 5-2). Last week: UNLV 31, Air Force 27. This week: Air Force at Boise State, Saturday.
3. FRESNO STATE (8-3, 4-3). Last week: New Mexico 25, Fresno State 17. This week: Fresno State at San Diego State, Saturday.
4. BOISE STATE (6-5, 5-2). Last week: Boise State 45, Utah State 10. This week: Air Force at Boise State, Saturday.
5. SAN JOSE STATE (6-5, 5-2). Last week: San Jose State 24, San Diego State 13. This week: San Jose State at UNLV, Saturday.
6. WYOMING (7-4, 4-3). Last week: Wyoming 42, Hawaii 9. This week: Wyoming at Nevada, Saturday.
7. UTAH STATE (6-5, 4-3). Last week: Boise State 45, Utah State 10. This week: Utah State at New Mexico, Friday.
8. COLORADO STATE (5-6, 3-4). Last week: Colorado State 30, Nevada 20. This week: Colorado State at Hawaii, Saturday.
9. NEW MEXICO (4-7, 2-5). Last week: New Mexico 25, Fresno State 17. This week: Utah State at New Mexico, Friday.
10. NEVADA (2-9, 2-5). Last week: Colorado State 30, Nevada 20. This week: Wyoming at Nevada, Saturday.
11. HAWAII (4-8, 2-5). Last week: Wyoming 42, Hawaii 9. This week: Colorado State at Hawaii, Saturday.
12. SAN DIEGO STATE (3-8, 1-6). Last week: San Jose State 24, San Diego State 13. This week: Fresno State at San Diego State, Saturday.