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UNLV a tortoise that’s more than a hair behind elite teams

They begin to occur in a college football coaching’s staff third season and increase in the fourth. Measuring games. Those weeks when it is determined where your program stands in relation to the best in its conference. Those weeks when you discover how far you have come and how far you must travel to be considered valid.

In the case of UNLV vs. Texas Christian today, think of the distance between Alaska and Maine.

Mike Sanford talks often about his desire to build the Rebels into a Mountain West contender, about how close he believes they are from taking that grueling step from being a team everyone wants to play to one they dread.

Talk is one thing.

Speed is another.

If it wasn’t apparent before Saturday, it is now: The Rebels need boatloads of the latter.

UNLV never was going to beat TCU, which perhaps is one reason thousands below the fictitious announced crowd of 16,121 showed up to Sam Boyd Stadium. The Rebels never were going to hold up enough defensively and definitely not score enough offensively.

It never was going to come down to UNLV needing a last-minute defensive stand or scoring drive to win, which I guess is what you would refer to as the bright side of things.

Throw in an inadequate punting game against a strong but not ridiculous wind that no longer has Ray Guy or anyone associated with his list watching UNLV senior Dack Ishii and the field position TCU gained from it, and a 30-point loss seemed tame in some ways.

What stood out: In losing 44-14 and offering one of its weakest all-around efforts in some time, UNLV was exposed as a program lacking the foot speed necessary to stay close to a team like TCU, never mind considering the idea of beating one.

It was like watching Notre Dame against Southern California the past several years, only with 90,000 fewer people in attendance and not the tradition nor national interest attached.

The difference in speed was that obvious. The one edge UNLV might have owned was Sanford against TCU coach Gary Patterson, but only because Sanford gets so much practice running around the field each week.

“Without question, we have seen going into this game, going into this season and recruiting year, it has been magnified that we need to recruit more speed,” Sanford said. “That is a big thing for us.”

It’s a big thing for everyone in this league. Utah is the only program in the same ZIP code as TCU when it comes to speed. The Horned Frogs recruit high school quarterbacks and make them tight ends. They recruit prep running backs and make them defensive ends. Then they coach them up, and you get what UNLV endured.

Beaten soundly.

And you can forget about the suggestion that bigger means slower, because while TCU does just as impressive a job taking raw athletic bodies and turning them into ripped college physiques, none of the quickness is lost.

Improvement can be calculated different ways, and you can’t debate the Rebels (3-6) are better this season than in recent ones. But it’s a relative estimate, and this game showed they are much further from the league’s top tier than Sanford suggests.

It doesn’t mean UNLV hasn’t made significant strides, but those have come from what was a 6-22 record from 2005 to 2007.

You get a few of these conference measuring games each season. UNLV played better than expected in the first two — losses to Utah and Brigham Young — but failed from the outset in this one.

“We were talking at the beginning of the fourth quarter that we haven’t had a game like this in a long time,” UNLV wide receiver Casey Flair said. “It hurt. It has been awhile.”

All you will hear from UNLV now is how its final three games are winnable and that bowl eligibility still is an accessible goal.

Fine. It’s true, although that will change if sophomore quarterback Omar Clayton’s knee injury proves to be season-ending. It would be a shame. He has had a terrific first year running the offense on a full-time basis.

But just as no opponent should be deemed an automatic victory for a UNLV team that has lost 12 straight conference games, nor should anyone lose sight what this loss demonstrated.

The Rebels need to get a lot faster, because while some might see Russia from Alaska, you can’t see the top of the Mountain West from it.

“This was not the UNLV team that I know playing out there,” Sanford said. “That was below standard.”

Not to mention slow.

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

 

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