"The first thing I say is I do not believe in moral victories," Sanford said. "I believe we were going to win that football game. We should have won that football game.
"Our team played with tremendous heart, tremendous determination, belief and effort but it wasn't enough. We've got to find a way to win those kinds of games. We will."
For about 58 minutes on Saturday night, UNLV (1-1) had the fifth-ranked Badgers (2-0) on the ropes at sold out Sam Boyd Stadium.
The Rebels held a 13-12 lead and the Badgers, who had just been flagged for a delay of game penalty, faced a 1st-and-15 at the UNLV 29-yard line with just 2:04 remaining.
After a time out, Wisconsin lined up in the I-formation with its power backfield of 259-pound fullback Chris Pressley and 227-pound tailback P.J. Hill (30 carries, 147 yards) and appeared to be ready to continue attacking the Rebel defense between the tackles while setting up for a potential game-winning field goal try.
Instead, Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, a former coaching colleague of Sanford's with the San Diego Chargers, caught UNLV's defense off-guard by having quarterback Tyler Donovan fake to Hill and instead take off around left tackle on a naked bootleg.
Sophomore Rebel linebacker Starr Fuimaono lost contain as Donovan sprinted by and up a wide-open left sideline 29-yards for the game-winning touchdown.
"It was a situation where we had been pounding the ball with P.J.," Donovan said. "They can't play both. It was a great call by Coach Chryst to see it. It was an opportunity to change the game and put it away."
UNLV still had 1:46 and three timeouts remaining to try and drive for a game-winning field goal try after taking over on its own 14-yard line. And freshman quarterback Travis Dixon (23 of 36, 258 yards, 1 TD, 1 Int.) immediately connected with wide receiver Casey Flair (10 catches, 126 yards 1 TD) with a 10-yard pass for a first down.
But Dixon was sacked on two of the next three plays. Faced with a 4th-and-15 on the UNLV 19, Dixon threw a deep out to Rodelin Anthony who failed to come up with a diving grab.
"It's very disappointing," Flair said. "We expected to come in here and win today. … It's real disappointing for our football team."
"We don't accept moral victories," Dixon added. "We set a high standard for ourselves and we just let this one get away from us."
Sanford said his young team must learn from its mistakes and move on.
"The level and what we expect from ourselves has been raised," Sanford said. "We have to find a way to win those kinds of games in the fourth quarter."
The Rebels get another chance to do that on Saturday night when Hawaii and Heisman candidate Colt Brennan visit Sam Boyd Stadium.
Close but no cigar
Inside the Rebels Top Stories
Meet Rebel Recruit: Shakial TaylorMesa (AZ), C.C. Cornerback Shakial Taylor was offered by UNLV last week. Shak took some time to talk about UNLV, his recruitment and leaving a legacy on whatever program the big…
Inside the RebelsMonday at 7:54 PM
Las Vegas Stadium UpdateHere is the latest update on the Las Vegas stadium and Raiders potential move to Las Vegas.
Inside the RebelsMonday at 6:18 PM
Rebels Land PLaymaker In Devin LLoydTony Sanchez and UNLV received a commitment from a playmaking Safety/Wide Receiver in Devin Lloyd
Inside the RebelsMonday at 3:42 PM