Blast to the Past | All 5 of UNLV Football’s wins against ranked opponents  

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Devonte Boyd catches touchdown against BYU. Photo from Scarlet & Gray Free Press Archives.

After a Week 1 win against the Bryant Bulldogs, the UNLV Rebels are headed to the largest college football stadium in the country to take on the University of Michigan Wolverines. 

Currently, the Wolverines are listed as the No. 2 college football team in the country, according to the Associated Press. They earned that spot in the preseason poll and proved it when they took on the East Carolina Pirates, dispatching them by a score of 30-3. 

While this is a very difficult task that lies ahead for the Rebels, it would not be the first time they were able to cause a surprise upset against one of the country’s top 25 ranked universities. 

The Scarlet & Gray Free Press ranked and went in-depth into all five Rebels wins against ranked opponents.

No. 5 – UNLV vs. No. 20 Cal State Fullerton 26-20, Nov. 10, 1984

Looking back to the second time that the Rebels took down a ranked opponent, we would have to go back to the 1984 season in which they took down inter-conference Cal State Fullerton Titans by a score of 26-20, who were undefeated with a record of 10-0 and ranked 20th in the nation until that point. 

This is also the only time that the Rebels were able to take down a nationally ranked team at home when they still played at Sam Boyd Stadium.

The Rebels were led by star quarterback Randall Cunningham, who had one of his best seasons statistically during the 1984 campaign. Cunningham registered over 2,600 yards and 24 touchdowns that year. This was also the final season Cunningham played in college football before being drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1985. 

No. 4 – UNLV @ No. 16 Colorado State 36-33, Nov. 30, 2002

While taking down the Cal State Fullerton Titans was an important moment in the school’s history, it was a feeling of euphoria as they knocked off a higher-ranked team in the Colorado State Rams in 2002.

The win was filled with last-minute fireworks as UNLV running back Larry Croom ran for 222 yards, and wide receiver DeJhown Mandley caught a touchdown pass with 46 seconds remaining in the football game.

Ranked No. 16 in the country at the time, the Rams were looking forward to a matchup against a Rebels team that had not been looked at as an adversary to that season’s Rams squad.

The Rebels came into the game not afraid of a fight and were able to take the opposing Rams to the breaking point picking up the upset victory 36-33.

No. 3 – UNLV @ No. 15 Arizona State 23-20 OT, Sept. 13, 2008

The most recent win for the Rebels against a ranked opponent was an overtime thriller against the Arizona State Sun Devils. A game-winning field goal by Kyle Watson put the Rebels in the win column with a 23-20 OT victory.  

At the time, Arizona State was ranked No. 15 in the country, and the Rebels were playing at Tempe, Arizona in a packed Mountain America Stadium with over 53,000 passionate Sun Devils fans in attendance. 

While it looked like the Sun Devils were going to cruise to a victory late in the game, in the second half, the Rebels stormed back from 20-10 down to tie the game at 20 with less than a minute remaining in regulation. 

The final drive lasted a total of 2 minutes and 45 seconds, led by Rebel quarterback Omar Clayton, going 6-8 on completions for 70 yards and capped off by a touchdown reception from Phillip Payne.

With the late momentum, the Rebels capitalized as Watson knocked a 20-yard field goal through the uprights after UNLV blocked an attempted field goal attempt from ASU on the defensive side of the football. 

No. 2 – UNLV @ No. 14 Wisconsin 23-5, Sept. 13, 2003

In what is UNLV’s largest margin of victory against a ranked opponent, the Rebels took down the Wisconsin Badgers by a score of 23-5 in 2003. 

The Badgers at the time were ranked No. 14 in the country and were off to a 2-0 start and returning home to the 80,000-seat Camp Randall Stadium in Madison, Wisconsin. 

The Rebels had other plans as they were off and running from the game’s first drive. The theme of this win was entirely through the defensive side of the ball. 

The star of the game for UNLV was Jamaal Brimer, who stifled the Badger attack with a forced fumble, resulting in a return for a touchdown in the opening quarter, and never looked back. 

Brimmer also tacked on two interceptions to set up two more Rebel touchdowns and recorded two sacks to round up the rest of his night. 

The Wisconsin offense never got going, as they would not score another point after the first half. 

No. 1 – UNLV @ No. 8 BYU 45-41 Oct. 10, 1981

The Holy Grail in UNLV’s football program history has to come from a singular win during the 1981 season when they took down BYU and future NFL star quarterback Steve Young in a scoring frenzy until the end. 

The then No. 8 ranked BYU Cougar team was in the driver’s seat of a game they were expected to win, leading by as much as 17 points in the matchup.

However, this would not end up being the finish to the game’s story as the Rebels rallied back and took down the Cougars by a score of 45-41. 

The biggest win in Rebel football history had one of the greatest endings any football fan would want to see. While the date may seem like such a long time ago, the Rebels on the 1981 team will always have a core memory as this was the first time in program history that UNLV took down a ranked team.

While looking back to all of these wonderful moments in the UNLV football program history, it is important to note that the Michigan Wolverines will be quite possibly the most difficult team UNLV has ever taken on. 

To catch the action, tune into CBS at 12:30 p.m. PST on Sept. 9. To stay tuned to live play-by-play and up-to-the-minute updates from Ann Arbor, follow the Scarlet & Gray Free Press on X (@UNLVFreePress).

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