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Picky sure, but Rebels need more than resiliency

A sign of continuing progress:

It is halftime of a UNLV football game and I have begun writing because the outcome against a Big 12 Conference opponent appears decided, because the Rebels have dominated to the level they lead 21-0 and have held Iowa State to one first down and 38 yards.

A sign of continuing troubles:

The first possession of overtime has ended and Iowa State leads 31-28. I began writing far too soon.

If you have to learn how to win a game nobody thinks you should one week, it’s just as critical to then survive one you should have earned in a far more comfortable fashion than 34-31.

Last week’s overtime victory against Arizona State will be remembered for its upset value, for the resiliency UNLV displayed, for Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson having the facial expression of a guy who just hit 4-of-5 on a $1,000 parlay while fighting a bad case of constipation.

This overtime victory against Iowa State will be remembered for how far the Rebels have come in some phases and for the miles and miles they still must travel in others to be thought of as a legitimate weekly threat.

They had no business coming so close to a second defeat, not against a Cyclones team that was all but buried and might win two more times this season. Might.

The good: This one means as much for UNLV as beating Arizona State, and perhaps more. Seriously. Blowing a three-touchdown lead and then winning on your first offensive play of overtime won’t produce the positive national reaction UNLV received after its triumph in Tempe, but you’ll never get any better by following great performances with a loss.

Days from now, UNLV will sit at 3-1 with two wins against teams from BCS conferences in the same season for the first time in school history and the second-half collapse will be as distant a memory as Ben Affleck’s career.

It’s not yet October and the Rebels already have won more games in a season than any of the previous three under Mike Sanford. Perennial last-place teams can’t be choosy. These are the kind of games UNLV has always lost in recent times.

“I called them together (before overtime) and told them, ‘You have to forget about everything that has happened up until now,’ ” Sanford said. “I told them, ‘This is where you have to believe you’re going to win and find a way.’

“Iowa State did a great job to get itself back in the game and we didn’t play well enough to (put it away). … We’ve talked about the need to win close games in this program. It’s one way to turn your fortunes around.”

The bad: If your company is in the market for a guest speaker on the importance of patience, don’t give Omar Clayton a second look.

The Rebels have obvious problems, beginning with a secondary that on some nights couldn’t cover me. It’s ridiculous that UNLV allowed Iowa State a nine-play, 98-yard drive over 1:31 to tie the game and send it to overtime, but not completely shocking when you realize the Rebels’ main defensive weakness.

But the Cyclones likely wouldn’t have owned enough time to drive the field if someone had properly taught Clayton the importance of clock management. The sophomore quarterback will never be Troy Aikman in that regard, but running out the clock with a late advantage usually doesn’t include countless snaps with double-digit seconds remaining on the play clock.

That’s coaching, and someone has to do a better job of it when it comes to Clayton and how he manages a lead.

But learning how to win means these kinds of games. It means being so good in the first half, the only worrisome image is if Iowa State hothead defensive back Leonard Johnson might make his way back onto the field after being ejected and begin swinging his helmet while drilling people up to the Club Level with more cheap shots.

It means being so inconsistent and error prone and out of sorts in the second half that an inferior team nearly escapes your stadium with a win.

A sign things have changed: UNLV didn’t allow its still obvious flaws to cost itself a significant victory.

A sign things haven’t completely changed: Nine plays, 98 yards, 1:31.

A sign things are better no matter who won Saturday night: Leonard Johnson has left town and is back in Ames, Iowa, by now.

I just hope some poor charter stewardess didn’t short him any peanuts or soda on the trip home.

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

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