Rebels' only option: Eat or be eaten

LOGAN, Utah -- This was a food-chain game for UNLV football. You sit near the end of a lengthy table of Division I-A programs for years and opportunities to eat a victor's portion rarely exist. There was no alternative to winning for the Rebels on Thursday night. There wasn't another option. Losing to Utah State would have been dreadful on more levels than you can envision.

The Rebels should be commended for doing everything possible to leave Romney Stadium with a 23-16 season-opening win.

They should also awake today feeling exceedingly fortunate.

The good is that they found a way. They made enough plays to officially bury that 15-game road losing streak that dated to when "Sideways" was drawing moviegoers to the theater. The good is that they scored 20 second-half points after an opening 30 minutes best described as absurd.

How else to portray one first down and 49 yards at halftime against a team that will have to literally stumble into a victory this season, and odds aren't great that will happen.

"Our team showed tremendous character in coming back on the road with the long (losing) streak and in a very difficult environment to come into and win a game," UNLV coach Mike Sanford said. "Our deal was to find a way to win no matter what it takes. It wasn't beautiful. It wasn't perfect. But our (players) believed they were going to win, and they found a way."

Bad teams tend to make things unnecessarily difficult on themselves, and you couldn't have sketched a better picture of two sides that have for some time perfected that role. The fact that a series of positive moments and even more forgettable ones produced a 16-all tie in the final minutes made perfect sense given the teams involved.

UNLV has every right to bask in the happiness of being 1-0 following consecutive two-win seasons. It also still makes the kind of undisciplined mistakes that will get the Rebels throttled against good teams, never mind ones such as Wisconsin and Hawaii in the coming weeks.

The Rebels had 12 penalties for 101 yards. They were called for four personal fouls. They pretty much came this close to ruining what was a terrific defensive effort (Utah State managed just 92 yards after halftime) with mere stupidity on both sides. If there is another team in the nation called more often for false starts than UNLV, it hasn't surfaced. It's absolutely amazing how often the Rebels shoot themselves in the foot at critical times.

"I was very disappointed in our team," Sanford said. "We didn't show a lot of composure in some situations. We have to eliminate and correct that for us to be a great football team."

They have to do a lot of things just to be consistently competitive.

Travis Dixon gets a passing mark for his initial collegiate effort based solely on the outcome. But it's a good sign when a redshirt freshman quarterback is still confident enough to follow a first half in which he was just 2-for-3 for 2 yards and barely gave the appearance of wanting to throw to going 10-for-17 for 139 yards thereafter. He also rushed for 129 yards and a score, proving true the preseason belief he will make key plays with his feet.

But improvement is essential for all phases, coaching included. Some of the penalties were ridiculous. Sanford also tried explaining away why on earth he chose to kick an extra point instead of going for two when leading by five points with 12:46 remaining.

Something about not allowing Utah State an opportunity to win with two field goals, which probably would have demanded the Aggies actually drive more than 30 yards twice and then have a true freshman kicker (Peter Caldwell) making both kicks.

Yeah, all that would have happened.

And yet the Rebels overcame it all. The penalties. The early vanilla offense to protect a young quarterback. Being entirely outplayed for 30 minutes by unquestionably the weakest team on this year's schedule. The incorrect move not to go for two for fear Lou Groza might beat them. (Utah State, miserable as it is, then missed an extra point after tying things at 16.)

UNLV overcame it all to sing and dance and hug and finally shed the stain of 15 straight road losses.

"It feels great," linebacker Beau Bell said. "Man, it feels great. That was the main goal when we left here. Just be 1-0."

They didn't have a choice.

There was no alternative.

Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or