ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — UNLV came here two years ago as a favorite, too, but the Rebels brought a considerably different mindset.
That was a football team still finding its way, one split between Bobby Hauck recruits and Mike Sanford holdovers.
A team on which some players bought in and others checked out.
A team that didn’t truly believe in itself and was down to its third-string quarterback.
UNLV (2-2) might again come away a loser when it plays New Mexico (1-2) at 5 p.m. PDT today in the Mountain West opener for both teams, but after consecutive victories for the first time in nearly five years, little question exists the Rebels are much more confident. They also are 2-point favorites.
“You can see everybody has that bright feeling about them,” UNLV defensive tackle Tyler Gaston said. “They’re ready to get into the week. Nobody’s slouching around. Everyone’s hitting the weight room. You’re entering the week with a different mindset.”
Quarterback Caleb Herring, one of the few Sanford-signed players still on the team, is perhaps the major reason for the resurgence after a tough start this season.
Herring rallied the Rebels to a 31-21 victory over Central Michigan, then led them to a dominant 38-7 win over Western Illinois to give his team momentum entering this weekend.
“They’ve been on fire ever since,” New Mexico coach Bob Davie said.
Hauck said even before training camp he believed this was his best team, but it spent the first two-plus games playing too much like recent UNLV outfits, making mistake after mistake in losses of 51-23 at Minnesota and 58-13 to Arizona.
More trouble was in store when Central Michigan bolted to a 21-0 lead in the second quarter on Sept. 14. But then Herring began the turnaround with a 50-yard completion to Devante Davis to set up a touchdown that started a 69-7 Rebels run going into tonight.
Gaston said the team’s confidence has grown as a result of the sudden hot play.
“You have some good plays under your belt, you have emotion, you have cohesiveness which comes from (winning),” Gaston said. “Hopefully the team keeps it going.”
So maybe the Rebels are in their best frame of mind under Hauck, who is in his fourth season, to finally end their dreadful road losing streak, which has grown to 23 games — only three short of the school record.
Hauck and the two players at the weekly news conference were tight-lipped when asked repeatedly about the skid.
“It would be nice not to have to answer these questions in four weeks or whatever it is,” Hauck said.
In the Rebels’ quest to make the streak a topic of the past, this game is their best chance to do just that.
UNLV, however, must keep New Mexico’s Kasey Carrier, who leads the Mountain West with 122.3 yards rushing per game, from taking control. The Lobos, who run the triple option, average 267 yards rushing.
New Mexico’s defense, though, allows averages of 35 points and 440 yards, and the Lobos have had trouble against the run and the pass.
But UNLV also was supposed to win the last time it came here. Then the 7½-point favorite Rebels went down 21-14, handing New Mexico its only victory of 2011.
It was a stinging defeat, and it would be at least as damaging should the Rebels return home on the losing end this weekend.
Hauck deflected questions about the importance of this game, but the ramifications of a victory or a loss could linger.
“Once you get the taste of winning,” Rebels offensive tackle Brett Boyko said, “you don’t want that to stop.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.