Rebels brace for step up in class

From the Big Ten Conference to the deeper and stronger Pac-12.

From a lower-rung Big Ten foe in Minnesota to what should be a more competitive opponent in Arizona.

UNLV was beaten 51-23 last week by the Golden Gophers, though three crazy plays turned what otherwise was a close football game into a rout.

Still, the question remains: Will the Rebels, who are 12-point underdogs, fare any better when they take a step up in competition at 7:30 p.m. today at Sam Boyd Stadium?

Add in the fact Arizona is expected to get back running back Ka’Deem Carey, who didn’t play in last week’s 35-0 victory over Northern Arizona because of a suspension. He led the country last season with 1,929 yards rushing, prompting UNLV coach Bobby Hauck to question whether his team could tackle the 5-foot 10-inch, 207-pound junior.

“He’s big, he’s a fast guy, he’s a good player,” UNLV defensive end Jordan Sparkman said. “We see that every day in practice. Practicing against Tim Cornett gives us the same look. Nothing to be fearful about. (Carey’s) a good player; we’re a good team.

“We’re going to dominate him, I mean every play. We want him to get no yards. Not saying that if he gets yards, it’s OK because he’s a good player, but my mission is he’s getting no yards. We’ll shut him down on the defensive line and the whole defense. He’s definitely the top guy. Let’s cut the head off the snake, and the snake should die.”

Carey might have something to say about Sparkman’s comments before the night is through.

Perhaps, though, the Rebels need a change in attitude, more of an edge if they are to have success. They have a right to feel more confident at home. UNLV was in every home game last season, despite going 2-11 overall.

“I feel more relaxed at home,” guard Cameron Jefferson said. “I’ve been playing in Vegas since my junior year of high school, so it’s nothing new to me.”

UNLV comes off a performance in which it outgained Minnesota by 99 yards, but two special teams touchdowns and a TD on an 89-yard interception return turned the game in the Gophers’ favor.

The Rebels can’t afford to make those kinds of plays and expect to be in the fourth quarter tonight with a chance to win.

But UNLV also found positives in the opener that can help it move forward. The Rebels’ new quick-hitting spread offense mostly was effective moving the ball, and the defense allowed only 320 yards.

Should UNLV build on those accomplishments, it could give Arizona a more difficult game than oddsmakers expect.

“I know we can move the ball very well on offense,” Jefferson said. “We can’t have any mistakes.”

In many ways, the Rebels’ season begins next week when the schedule softens for a four-game stretch, but they have pulled off September surprises the past two seasons, beating Hawaii in 2011 and Air Force last year.

Maybe UNLV has another one in store, but it probably won’t be easy.

“We’ve got a pretty high regard for these guys,” Hauck said. “They’re certainly as good or better than anybody we’ll play.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.