UNLV Rebels loses finale 56-9 at No. 18 TCU
FORT WORTH, Texas (AP)
UNLV scored first and was still hanging tough with 18th-ranked TCU late in the first half. Then came two big returns.
Greg McCoy took a kickoff 99 yards for a touchdown and Kris Gardner had a 16-yard interception return for a score in a 12-second span just before halftime and the Horned Frogs went on to a 56-9 victory Saturday to clinch their third consecutive Mountain West Conference title.
''When you get those back-to-back scores that really takes the wind out of your sails,'' Rebels coach Bobby Hauck said.
The Rebels (2-9, 1-6 MWC) led 3-0 when Nolan Kohorst kicked a 39-yard field goal in the first quarter. Later, after he kicked a 43-yarder to get UNLV back within 21-6, TCU responded with its two quick returns for touchdowns.
After McCoy ran the ensuing kickoff back for a touchdown, Gardner picked off a pass by freshman quarterback Taylor Barnhill on UNLV's next snap and went untouched into the end zone. Barnhill was playing in place of Caleb Herring, who was out with a shoulder injury.
''We were in the game and playing hard and fairly well,'' Hauck said. ''But any time we match up with TCU's speed, skill and athletic ability, you are holding your breath every time the ball goes out. They're awfully good. In a game like this where you are the underdog, you have to get touchdowns and not field goals.''
Linebacker Bryce Saldi, who suffered a debilitating brain injury two years ago, rejoined his UNLV teammates for what would have been his final game.
Saldi, who was a standout at nearby Southlake Carroll High School, was at midfield as an honorary captain for the Rebels during the pregame coin toss.
Even though Saldi as been rehabilitating at home since sustaining his head injury in a skateboarding accident while on vacation in California in July 2009, his UNLV locker has remained intact and his name on the roster.
''We just wanted to make sure he felt included at all times. He's still part of this team and we still love him. It was a great thing we were able to do for him,'' senior tight end Austin Harrington said. ''He never ceases to amaze me on how much he progresses each time I see him.''
The son of former Dallas Cowboys tight end Jay Saldi, the younger Saldi played in all 12 games as a freshman during the 2008 season. Bryce Saldi joined 15 other UNLV seniors for their last games.
The Rebels finished the season with a five-game losing streak and are 4-21 in two seasons under Hauck, who was 80-17 and led Montana to three FCS championship games in seven years before that.
If TCU (10-2, 7-0 MWC) moves up two spots into the top 16 of the final Bowl Championship Series standings Sunday night, it will be virtually guaranteed of going to its third consecutive BCS game, even with two losses. The Frogs likely destination would be the Sugar Bowl.
''We're probably going to celebrate more on winning the conference championship than we are going to be waiting on the BCS,'' senior linebacker Kris Gardner said. ''But definitely fingers crossed.''
TCU has won seven consecutive games since an overtime loss at home to SMU on Oct. 1. The winning streak includes a 36-35 win over then-No. 5 Boise State three weeks ago that ended the Broncos' 35-game regular-season home winning streak.
The Frogs, who are moving to the Big 12 Conference next season, are leaving the Mountain West with a record 24 consecutive conference victories. They have their fourth consecutive 10-win season.
The returns by McCoy and Gardner happened about the same time Southern Miss was wrapping up a 49-28 victory at previously undefeated Houston in the Conference USA championship game. Updates of that game were being announced to the crowd, and getting big cheers.
Any champion from a non-automatic qualifying conference is guaranteed a BCS berth by finishing in the top 16 and higher than a champion from a league with an automatic BCS berth.
TCU is already higher in the BCS standings than West Virginia, Cincinnati and Louisville, the co-champions of the Big East, the league the Frogs were going to join before opting for the Big 12 instead. Southern Miss is 24th in the latest BCS standings, six spots behind TCU. Houston was sixth and would have been in one of the big games with a championship in non-AQ Conference USA.