LAS VEGAS — As far as the Utah Utes are concerned, this is a much better way to leave Las Vegas.
In their first visit back to Sam Boyd Stadium after being shutout and embarrassed in a 2007 loss to UNLV, the Utes handed the Rebels a 35-15 setback.
"So much better," said senior linebacker Stevenson Sylvester. "A lot more smiles this time. It's always good."
There was no wailing and gnashing of teeth this time around, just a sense that a win is a win.
"Yeah, it was a good victory," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. "But if we want to become the type of team we want to become and accomplish what we want to accomplish, we've got a lot of work to do."
The 24th-ranked Utes, who improved to 5-1 overall and 2-0 in Mountain West Conference play, were penalized 10 times for 110 yards and wound up in a 327-327 standstill with UNLV in total offense.
"We didn't play very well in the second half. Too many penalties. Not a real clean half of football," Whittingham said. "We've got to get better."
Things didn't start off real well, either.
Utah fumbled the ball away on its first possession. The Rebels capitalized and took a 3-0 advantage on a 21-yard field goal by Kyle Watson.
It stayed that way until the Utes' third drive. That's when Terrance Cain capped a 10-play series with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Aiona Key.
Leading 7-3 after Joe Phillips added the extra point, Utah remained in front for the balance of the game.
UNLV pulled to within one early in the second quarter when Watson connected on a 26-yard kick, but the Rebels wound up trailing 28-6 by halftime.
The Utes took control after an exchange of punts.
A 6-yard scoring strike from Cain to tight end Ben Hendy opened a barrage of 21 unanswered points to close out the half.
Utah free safety Robert Johnson, the MWC's reigning Defensive Player of the Week, put an abrupt end to UNLV's next drive. He intercepted quarterback Omar Morgan and returned the ball 31 yards to the Rebel 8 — setting up another touchdown.
On second down, Cain ran into the end zone from three yards out to extend the Utes' lead.
Johnson followed with even more heroics when UNLV got the ball back. After driving into Utah territory, the Rebels were picked off once again. This time by defensive lineman Christian Cox. He fumbled the ball, however, and Johnson wrestled it away. The senior then ran 64 yards for a touchdown.
It capped a first half that didn't reflect the score statistically.
UNLV had more yardage (186-139), first downs (12-7) and won the time of possession battle (16:48-10:12). The Rebels also converted on 5-of-11 third-down situations, while the Utes were just 2-of-4.
Things didn't get any better in the third quarter. UNLV's statistical edges grew significantly and the Rebels put nine points on the board to make it 28-15. They closed the margin with a 20-yard touchdown pass from Mike Clausen to Phillip Payne before adding a 37-yard field goal from Watson.
Utah responded to the challenge early in the fourth quarter when Eddie Wide eluded a tackle and ran 37 yards for a touchdown. Phillips followed with the PAT to make it 35-15 with 12:55 left to play.
It wound up capping all scoring in the contest.
The Utes return to action Saturday at home against Air Force. After opening the season with four of their first six games on the road, they'll play three straight at Rice-Eccles Stadium. The homestand also includes visits by Wyoming and New Mexico.
Utah's season-ending slate features trips to TCU (Nov. 14) and BYU (Nov. 28), as well as a home game against San Diego State (Nov. 21).