LAS VEGAS (Ticker) -- John Robinson was hired last season to build a winner at Nevada-Las Vegas and it has not not taken him long to get a once moribund program headed in the right direction.
The Rebels, who were at the bottom of the NCAA heap following an 0-11 season in 1998, took another step forward by rolling past Arkansas, 31-14, in the Las Vegas Bowl.
Jason Thomas threw three touchdown passes, including a 56-yard strike to Troy Mason that snapped a 14-14 tie with 2:21 left in the third quarter.
Dillon Pieffer kicked a 26-yard field goal with 13:53 remaining before the Rebels clinched the victory on Kevin Brown's 18-yard TD run with 5:39 to go.
"The victory is about all these guys and not about me," said Robinson, who improved to 8-1 in bowl games. "There were 18 seniors who have been here and played their very best game tonight."
Thomas said the Rebels gained confidence after falling to Southeastern Conference member Mississippi, 43-40, in overtime in October.
"We knew after that game that our season was going to turn around and we showed in the Mississippi game that we could play against the SEC," Thomas said. "We saw Mississippi beat Arkansas shortly after we played them and there was never any doubt in the team's mind we would be able to play with them on the field."
Making just its third bowl appearance and first since 1994, UNLV (8-5) reached the eight-win mark for the first time since going 11-2 in 1984. The Rebels have five more wins (11-13) in Robinson's first 24 games than its previous four seasons combined (6-39).
UNLV struck a blow for the Mountain West Conference, outscoring Arkansas, 17-0, in a dominant second half and rolling up 476 total yards.
"This game was a very big game for the university," Robinson said. "It will enable us to go for bigger and better things. We won a championship with our heart. It wasn't the arena that was important, it was the event."
The Rebels overcame 12 penalties to close the season with their first four-game winning streak in 16 years. They also went unbeaten at home for the first time since 1977.
The loss capped a disappointing campaign for Arkansas (6-6), one of nine SEC teams that earned bowl bids. The Razorbacks endured a four-game losing streak before winning their final two contests to become bowl eligible.
Robby Hampton, who completed 18-of-40 passes for 183 yards, tossed two touchdown passes in the first half to give Arkansas a 14-7 lead. But the Rebels responded with 24 unanswered points, starting with Thomas' five-yard TD toss to Nate Turner with 3:12 left in the first half.
Arkansas had a chance to take the lead early in the third quarter but Brennan O'Donohoe missed a 29-yard field goal and it was all downhill from there for the Razorbacks.
"I was very disappointed in our team's play, especially late in the third quarter," Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said. "I felt that the missed opportunity early in the second half was very critical to the way the game went. That changed the mind set of the defense and UNLV began to gain more and more confidence as the game went on."
UNLV rushing for 259 yards, with Jeremi Rudolph gaining 92 yards on 14 carries. Thomas completed 12-of-17 passes for 217 yards.
Brandon Holmes amassed 99 yards on 26 carries for Arkansas, which was limited to just 115 on the ground.
In a scheduling quirk, Arkansas and UNLV will open next season in Little Rock on September 1.
"I was proud of the effort we showed," said Arkansas wide receiver Boo Williams, who had seven receptions for 97 yards. "I hate to lose. We're just gonna have to work harder next year and we'll get another shot at them real soon."