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Improved Rebels can’t close the deal — again

PROVO, Utah

What you are seeing is the part about gut-wrenching frustration, the one that resembles some unrelenting virus that if not brought under control, can eat away the insides of a football team.

What you are seeing is a program that still doesn’t know how to win and is paying for it with one demoralizing loss after another.

Mike Sanford is correct to say this is a component of the journey, another chapter in the book he believes will conclude with a happy ending.

The problem is, his team’s weekly failure to make a play when winning is at stake is reading with the protracted feel of “War and Peace.”

UNLV got better Saturday. It did. It might have departed LaVell Edwards Stadium a 42-35 loser to a Brigham Young team that is nowhere near a Bowl Championship Series level, but progress for the Rebels occurred.

“The most improved team in our conference,” BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “And it’s not even close.”

Not in one area essential for winning.

Not in the head.

One play away can mean one week away or one month away or one season away or never. It can be a margin of error a few inches long that feels like 10,000 miles. That’s where UNLV sits, unable to produce that one stop or convert that one score that is the difference between pretending and contending.

A team that knows how to win is 6-2 today with the script UNLV’s season has followed.

A team that doesn’t is 3-5.

“It’s a mental thing in that it keeps happening where it’s right there for the taking and we can’t get it done,” Rebels junior linebacker Jason Beauchamp said. “It’s like you get used to it and you start to think, ‘Here we go again.’ “

You can’t play that way and win. It’s impossible. You can’t compete on your heels. You can’t replace instincts with doubt. You can’t not believe and expect somehow to discover a way. You can’t make a game-changing play when you are more concerned about not making a game-changing mistake.

UNLV has lost three straight in which it surrendered final scoring drives of 80, 91 and 74 yards.

It has come to this: When BYU assumed possession trailing by one point with 6:40 remaining, the question was not if it would drive and score to go ahead but rather if UNLV’s offense would be left with enough time to try to mount its own rally. It was, and the Rebels couldn’t finish.

The most maddening part for UNLV: There is no magic answer to all this, no instant cure, no way to transform a team into one that ends a game the correct way until it does.

Someone, somewhere, at some point, has to step forward and make a play. If not, your program becomes a living, breathing, weekly Tolstoy novel.

“I hate losing, and this team hates losing,” Sanford said. “Unfortunately, this has been a recurring theme. Nobody is giving up. Nobody is giving in. We’re going to keep fighting. We gave every ounce we had today, and I expect us to do it again next week” against Texas Christian.

Meanwhile, things can be better in many places. Sanford can’t waste what is a promising future of several talented offensive players by not doing everything possible to sign junior-college defensive recruits capable of starting now. His defense needs immediate help. High school kids and redshirts won’t cut it.

Special teams can be better. It handed BYU two first-half touchdowns. Coaching can be better. Sanford afterward spent minutes explaining how the Rebels botched a supposed fake punt — not that you could tell from the nonpunt formation — when trailing by three with 11:30 left instead of explaining why he even considered such a move from his 34.

Two years ago, UNLV came here and rolled over in a 52-7 loss. The Rebels gave up that day sure as the Wasatch Mountains overlook the picturesque setting that is Provo.

That didn’t happen Saturday. The Rebels played their tails off. They made big mistakes. They made a lot of big plays. They exposed a BYU defense that if it did make a BCS game against a top-10 opponent could get smoked for 50 or more points.

The Rebels just couldn’t close the deal. Again.

“I wish today was the time we could have finally overcome it, but it wasn’t,” Beauchamp said. “We’re still working on that part. Belief is everything. We’re thinking too much about it. We’re hesitating.”

You can’t succeed that way.

It’s impossible.

It’s the difference between knowing how to win and not.

Ed Graney can be reached at 702-383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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