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Graney: A resilient bunch of Rebels shows championship fortitude

Updated November 20, 2023 - 7:07 pm


Champions are resilient.

They rally when down.

They don’t wave a white flag.

UNLV football right now is inching ever so close to claiming itself such a title.

It won again. And it was far from easy. But what a victory. What a comeback.

This is the kind of magical season UNLV has created under first-year coach Barry Odom, the latest win a 31-27 final against Air Force on Saturday in the altitude of Falcon Stadium.

Perhaps the most impressive thing Odom has done since arriving this year — and there are countless examples — is instill a level of belief in these Rebels not seen from the program in years.

The sort that pulls you through when down 13 at halftime on the road.

The sort that leads to a goal-to-go defensive stand in the final seconds.

“Those are tough kids, overcoming adversity, overcoming penalties, just staying in the arena, as we’ve talked about,” Odom said. “Let’s go play 60 minutes. This was a really great testament to that by everybody in the organization. So happy for our guys.”

San Jose State next

They just exude confidence. Even when things aren’t going well — and there were several instances of that Saturday — you never get the feeling they won’t score when needed or won’t defend when needed or won’t make a special teams play when needed. They did it all here.

So now they have one more regular-season game — against San Jose State at home next Saturday — to try and clinch a spot in the conference championship. A win would assure UNLV hosts that moment.

The biggest game in program history for a second straight week?

Why not?

UNLV could have folded in the second quarter. Air Force got its run game going and was gashing the Rebels up and down the field, eventually posting a 24-7 advantage.

But that’s not Odom and his players. A score before halftime gave the Rebels life, and a different team emerged following intermission. One that found itself on defense. One that refused to continue getting run over.

All it did was shut the Falcons out over the final 30 minutes.

“We knew if they got another score, the way the ball control was going, we were going to be in a tough spot,” Odom said. “You have to think about getting a stop on the next play and moving on to the next one.”

Nine wins. Think about that. It’s one thing to be bowl eligible for the first time since 2013, but to have this kind of season in a coach’s first year is beyond comprehension for a program that has lost so much for so long.

It was far from perfect Saturday. The Rebels were penalized 10 times for 120 yards. They turned it over twice. They allowed 344 yards rushing. They needed that goal-to-go stand to escape.

But perfection doesn’t show up in these types of games. Grit does. Toughness does. Poise on the most important of snaps does. Making the play when needed most does. Odom has brought such an attitude to UNLV football.

Moving on

His team did a lot of right and a lot of wrong Saturday but refused to lose in the end. It was a memorable finish, Air Force’s last opportunity being a pass from the 8-yard line into the end zone that fell incomplete.

And how a team from Las Vegas celebrated once it did.

“Now we have another opportunity next week to stay where we are,” Odom said. “This was a great win, but within 30 minutes we have to move past it and move on, because now the opportunity is bigger.

“It’s what we have talked about all year — try and get better each week. And how exciting to be able to be in Vegas and in Allegiant. I know our kids will prepare really well. I know San Jose is a terrific team.”

He has one as well.

Champions are resilient.

UNLV is oh-so-close to becoming one.

Ed Graney, a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing, can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on X.

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