LAS VEGAS — It seemed like the stars were aligned for UNLV to beat BYU for the first time ever at Sam Boyd Stadium Friday night.
Going into the game, the rising Rebels were favored, and still harbored hopes of getting bowl eligible, while the beleaguered Cougars, assured of their first losing season since 2004, had a freshman quarterback, Joe Critchlow, making his first career start.
But despite all of that, BYU continued its dominance of UNLV here, improving to 9-0 all-time against UNLV at Sam Boyd Stadium with a 31-21 victory before a crowd of 19,811.
Critchlow certainly didn’t play like a first-time starter. He and running back Squally Canada were the catalysts in the Cougars’ offensive output.
While Critchow completed 14 of 22 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions, Canada rushed for a career-high 213 yards and a TD. All but 30 of Canada's yards came in the second half.
“I thought Joe Critchlow played really well for his first time starting," said coach Kalani Sitake. "He showed a lot of poise. I’m really excited about his progress that he’s made since getting home from a mission not long ago.”
“It was early in the week when coach (Ty) Detmer informed me that I would get the nod and be the starting guy," Critchlow said. "The team as a whole really had my back. We had a great offensive plan and our defense played really well. It feels good to get a win.”
“I ran the same as last week (at Fresno State)," Canada said. "I just happened to get double to carries. It paid off.”
Canada made his BYU debut here in a 2015 Las Vegas Bowl loss and fumbled on his only carry that day.
UNLV entered the game averaging 252 yards rushing per game and finished with 122 yards. BYU outgained the Rebels on the ground with 265 yards.
The Cougars improved to 3-8 on the season while UNLV fell to 4-6.
BYU also improved to 13-4 all-time at Sam Boyd Stadium, including a 3-3 record in six Las Vegas Bowl appearances.
This was the Cougars’ first road victory in more than one year.
“To be able to come into Vegas, on the road, get this big win and celebrate in the locker room, everyone was amped," Critchlow said.
BYU opened the second half where it left off, with a scoring drive. Canada ran for a career-high 54-yard gain on first down and three plays later, he punched it in from two yards out to put the Cougars up 21-7 with 13:04 left in the third quarter.
Later in the quarter, BYU missed a field goal attempt and UNLV closed the gap on a six-play, 73-yard drive. That made it 21-14 for the Cougars with 4:23 remaining in the period.
BYU extended its lead to 28-14 when Austin Kafentzis ran for an 11-yard touchdown at the 1:40 mark of the third, his first career TD.
UNLV battled back again, converting a 4th-and-11 play and then scoring on a 14-yard pass to cap a 93-yard touchdown drive. But the Cougars took a 31-21 advantage on a 28-yard field goal by Rhett Almond with 5:39 left in the game.
BYU started slowly from the outset with Critchlow taking the snaps as it punted on its first two drives.
“Towards the beginning of the game, I maybe had a little bit of nerves," Critchlow said. "But I feel like once our running game started clicking, it made the passing game a lot easier. I was really satisfied and impressed with our offensive line.”
Meanwhile, UNLV missed a 47-yard field goal on its opening drive and then punted.
The Cougar defense came up big when safety Zayne Anderson intercepted Rebel quarterback Johnny Stanton in the end zone.
BYU’s offense took advantage of the miscue, as it put together a seven-play, 80-yard drive that featured a 20-yard run by Austin Kafentzis out of the wildcat, a 30-yard pass from Critchlow to Micah Simon, a 18-yard completion to Hifo, which set up a two-yard touchdown run by Brayden El-Bakri as BYU took a 7-0 lead.
The Rebels responded quickly, however, going 79 yards to tie the score at 7, culminating with a one-yard TD run by Thomas with 4:25 left in the first half.
On the Cougars’ ensuing drive, Critchlow calmly marched the offense down field with a good balance between running and passing. A 26-yard completion from Critchlow to Bushman put BYU into scoring position.
With 32 seconds left in the first half, Canada fumbled the ball after a six-yard run but after a review, BYU retained possession as the officials ruled that Canada was down before he lost the ball.
On the next play, Critchlow pass fell incomplete but UNLV had called timeout before the ball was snapped. Critchlow then threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Hifo, who managed to get a foot down in the end zone for the score.
“That felt great. To get a score right before half knowing we were going to get the ball in the second half was really big for the momentum of the team," Critchlow said. "Honestly, when I threw the ball I thought I threw it a little far but Aleva made a great play and got his foot down. It really boosted our offense.”
That made it 14-7 for BYU at halftime.
The Cougars host UMass next Saturday.