Updated November 26, 2021 - 5:36 pm
UNLV football coach Marcus Arroyo noticed the improvements this season. In all three phases. In the way the Rebels remained competitive amid loss after loss after loss.
They remained resilient throughout the season, breaking through to win twice in November. And losing six times by a single score.
But none of the improvements were prevalent Friday in the season finale.
UNLV concluded its second season under Arroyo with a lifeless 48-14 loss to Air Force in Colorado Springs, Colorado. That after pushing then No. 19 San Diego State to the brink of its second Mountain West loss last week. The Rebels finish their 2021 season with a 2-10 record, including a 2-6 mark in conference play.
Another pivotal offseason begins Saturday.
“I’ve been completely excited and optimistic about the improvements we made this season. Our identity. Our effort. Our commitment to each other. Our toughness,” Arroyo told reporters Friday. “The play has typified a lot of that stuff. Tonight wasn’t our night.”
Consider this: Air Force did not attempt a pass en route to its victory. The Falcons (9-3, 6-2) ran roughshod through the Rebels, totaling 69 carries for 511 rushing yards with their triple-option offense. Five ball-carriers scored touchdowns. Air Force possessed the ball for more than two-thirds of the game.
UNLV didn’t do itself any favors by fumbling the opening kickoff and fumbling on its ensuing possession. Air Force punted once, opening a 38-0 lead.
The Rebels didn’t score until midway through the third quarter.
“Lack of execution against a quality opponent — especially late in the season — is always tough,” Arroyo said.
Junior quarterback Justin Rogers started in place of freshman Cameron Friel, who left the 28-20 loss to the Aztecs last week with a foot injury.
Rogers eclipsed 300 passing yards and threw two touchdowns last week. But he struggled to find his footing Friday against a powerful pass rush that generated five sacks, finishing 8 of 18 for 127 yards.
Senior running back Charles Williams capped his record-setting career with 16 carries for 137 yards and two second-half touchdowns. He finished the season with 1,256 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns.
“I kind of just wanted to finish it off on a strong note,” Williams said after his final college game. “It’s sad that the outcome (didn’t go) our way. But we at least tried to show that we had fight.”
The Rebels had fight throughout the course of the season, dropping six games by a single score. They developed a reliable passing attack as Friel played more. Williams steadied the backfield and drew defensive attention whether he produced efficiently or not.
UNLV’s defense had been a strength until Friday and still finishes the season in much better shape than last year’s unit. But Arroyo reiterated throughout the season that he doesn’t believe in moral victories and knows there is much more work to do in order for the Rebels to produce actual victories on a regular basis.
“We let some things get in the way. I’ve got to figure out what that is. That’s my job,” the coach said. “I didn’t get these guys obviously ready enough to play. … We’ve got to do a better job.”