SALT LAKE CITY
When trying to surface from the ocean floor, you can’t expect a clean and swift journey. Things will be choppy in places. Nothing comes easy for those at the bottom.
UNLV’s football team wasn’t going to beat Utah on Saturday night, and all it’s going to take to win at Arizona State next week is one of the biggest upsets in Rebels history.
They don’t own the depth or skill to stay with opponents of that level for 60 minutes on the road. It’s too much to ask at this point.
But two games into Mike Sanford’s fourth season as head coach, it’s obvious the guy in charge is correct about one assessment: His team is better this year than last and far more capable than two losing seasons ago.
What that might ultimately mean in overall record come November is anyone’s guess, but you need to look at just one drive from a 42-21 loss here to realize an obvious positive step UNLV has taken.
The Rebels in October of 2006 traveled to Provo, where they rolled over like your puppy doing a trick and were waxed by Brigham Young, 52-7. There is no disguising the lack of effort by UNLV players that day. They gave up.
Mindset means a lot when you aren’t as talented as most of those you line up against. It’s one thing to lose because you’re not as good, which the Rebels weren’t here and won’t be at ASU. It’s another to lose in ways that scream not only of inferior ability, but also of blatant insecurity.
The latter might not be an issue for the first time in Sanford’s tenure, a suggestion born from a 16-play, 77-yard scoring drive over seven minutes late in the fourth quarter, when Utah had long guaranteed victory and led by 28.
The Rebels could have easily offered another second-half three-and-out, lost by four touchdowns, made those who laid the points delighted and no one would have blinked at the final score.
Instead, they converted on four third downs, a fourth-down call and refused to be shut out in the second half.
Instead, they showed a pulse when past UNLV teams would have been flat-lined a quarter earlier.
"Our character is a big difference in this team than the one from two years ago," Sanford said. "Our character is better. The way we handled that at the end, the way we kept attacking and moving the ball and finding a way to score a touchdown, that showed a lot of character."
Now comes the difficult part: Not losing it in the face of failure.
UNLV’s secondary is clearly the team’s biggest defensive weakness, and you can imagine the potential for ASU quarterback Rudy Carpenter to go a bit crazy on the stat sheet in Tempe.
When you add the fact that UNLV on Saturday lost its top two tacklers in linebackers Starr Fuimaono (knee) and Ronnie Paulo (ankle) for the foreseeable future, any chance of the Rebels consistently stopping the Sun Devils borders on absurd.
But if scores around the country have told us anything these first few weeks, it’s that several winnable games indeed exist on UNLV’s schedule.
Colorado State needed a last-second field goal to beat Sacramento State, for heaven’s sake. Wyoming just lost to Air Force at home by 20. New Mexico is 0-2. So is San Diego State, which should have beaten a dreadful Notre Dame team in South Bend but looked inept just the same.
The point: If UNLV can finally avoid responding to early-season losses with a level of doubt that has led to long and ugly losing streaks, significant progress could be made on the only measuring stick that matters. Wins and losses.
"We kept fighting this game," said UNLV safety Daryl Forte, who started that game in Provo two years ago. "We played together. We have different guys now. A lot of those guys (from 2006) are gone. We have a way better attitude now. We’re not going to lay down."
Mindset won’t take you from the bottom to the surface overnight. It won’t promise winning records or bowl games. UNLV over the second half here slipped back into some troublesome and ridiculous habits in terms of penalties and defensive/special team breakdowns. There is no certainty the Rebels won’t sink just as fast as recent seasons.
But they showed something that final scoring drive against Utah’s first-team defense. A pulse. A belief.
A legitimate desire to be better than previous UNLV teams that accepted defeat rather than fight it until the final play. You can build on that. At worst, the water becomes less choppy.
Ed Graney can be reached at 383-4618 or firstname.lastname@example.org.