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Can Rebels string together wins?


This is how you would have thought things might look if predicting the future in June and July.

The opinion wouldn’t have changed in August.

The reality has found September.

UNLV football faced a schedule to begin this season that most would have forecast a 1-2 record following three games, no matter the level of improvement the Rebels might have exhibited (or not) to this point.

But tonight is significant.

Confidence matters. Winning matters more.

The Rebels have another opportunity to win consecutive games under fourth-year head coach Bobby Hauck, hardly a pivotal moment in the lives of players from most programs nationally, but one those at UNLV haven’t known.

Western Illinois visits Sam Boyd Stadium for a 6 p.m. kickoff, a program from the Football Championship Subdivision level, but don’t for a second believe that means a walkover for UNLV.

Southern Utah was an FCS team that visited in 2011.

And beat the Rebels 41-16.

Northern Arizona was one that visited last season.

And beat the Rebels 17-14.

But if the reality of Hauck’s team is more the one that scored 31 unanswered points to defeat Central Michigan seven days ago than the one that trailed Arizona 45-6 at halftime the previous week, UNLV has every chance to win consecutive games for the first time since 2008, when Mike Sanford was coach, the Sam Boyd locker rooms were still below average and the victims, both in overtime, were Arizona State on the road and Iowa State at home.

“I was excited about this season because I felt like in the vast majority of our games that we’d be on a level playing field with the teams we were playing,” Hauck said. “I think throughout the year — the Arizona game is an example of that — there will be times where we’re going to be up against it and things are going to have to fall our way. But a far cry from that being the case every week.

“So in terms of momentum and winning two games in a row, as a staff we’ve been able to enjoy that experience many times (at other programs). What I want is for the (players) — we’ve been together for a while — to experience that. So we’re locked down. It would be great for our players to get to experience that, because it’s fun when you can get a second win in a row.”

Here’s why: It’s easier to teach, to challenge, to correct, to guide, to inspire.

When you lose, which the Rebels have done nearly as well as anyone, the following week of practice becomes as much psychology as instruction. Bruised egos need to be massaged. Frail mindsets need to be strengthened

When you win, the focus is sharper, the resolve stronger, the desire to do so again and again dominates drills.

You can push players harder following a win. You can demand more.

“Our kids do want to win desperately,” Hauck said. “I think it’s important to them. They’ve invested, and when you invest heavily in something, it’s hard to give up. And they definitely don’t have any of that in them. In terms of perception, the only perception I worry about is the one in the locker room. We’ve got a big game (tonight) against a good team. We’ve got our hands full.”

Don’t they always?

Think about it: UNLV has owned just seven chances under Hauck to follow one victory with another and hasn’t yet come close to doing so.

Over the previous six opportunities, the loss following a victory came by scores of 44-26, 35-20, 41-16, 48-21, 35-13 and 33-11. One of those games was against Southern Utah. Four of the six were in Las Vegas.

The seventh such chance comes tonight against a Western Illinois team that competed as well or better at Minnesota last week than the Rebels did to open the season Aug. 29. The Leathernecks lost 29-12 to the Gophers in a game but trailed just 15-12 after three quarters; the Rebels lost 51-23 at Minnesota.

“We knew we would be hard-pressed to go to Minnesota, a Big Ten school, and upset them, even though in my mind and viewing the film we had an opportunity to do that and didn’t capitalize on it,” Hauck said. “Arizona just came out and kicked our tail (58-13). But last week (against Central Michigan), where we didn’t exactly come out and light it up in the first quarter, there wasn’t lack of confidence with our football team.

“After a loss like the Arizona one, you’re more worried about letting our guys know it’s going to be OK, rather than coming off a win, when you can say, ‘Hey, we did pretty well for a good portion of that game, so now we can make a big point of the things we didn’t do well.’”

He was able to do that in practice this week — teach more, challenge more, correct more.

Back in June and July, this is how most would have thought the scrip would read.

UNLV is 1-2 with a terrific chance to be 2-2.

Winning matters.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.