ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Three weeks later, in a business defined by its bottom line, in a world where winners and losers are rightly separated based on final scores, UNLV’s football team today would earn a movie review of a rotten green tomato.
How far the Rebels are from a certified fresh rating is anyone’s guess.
The pain of trying to build a respectable program doesn’t allow for detours by which to avoid reality, meaning the Rebels must deal with present failure as much as they dream about future success.
They need to own whom they are before becoming what they hope to be.
UNLV departed Michigan Stadium a 28-7 loser Saturday before 108,683 mostly maize and blue souls, not physically able to handle a Wolverines side that looked neither intimidating nor sharp enough to concern the best Big Ten Conference teams and perhaps even some of the average ones.
Jim Harbaugh has a ways to go before returning Michigan to any level of national prominence.
Hey, everything is relative.
Take the Rebels. I don’t agree with the popular notion that UNLV’s season begins next weekend at home against Idaho State, because doing so would allow for the previous three games to be discarded as if they never occurred.
It’s a loser’s way of thinking, opposite of what Tony Sanchez has preached since being named coach in December.
“It has been a hell of a three-week stretch, and we’re obviously disappointed where we are at,” Sanchez said. “I’m a competitor. I hate losing more than I enjoy winning. That’s why I’ve had so much success in my career and why I’m the head coach at UNLV. We’re going to win a bunch of games, but it’s frustrating right now. We didn’t come here to look good.
“The thing I’m most proud of is that there is no quit in this team. They fight, they fight and they fight. We don’t quit. We don’t give up. However, in this game, that’s not enough. Unfortunately, this game is about winning and losing, and right now we have three losses.”
If anything best defines UNLV over setbacks to Northern Illinois, UCLA and Michigan, it’s consistent effort. Some might believe playing hard should be an expected result for anyone privileged enough to compete at the college level, but it’s hardly a given with young minds that grow frustrated when losing.
It doesn’t happen everywhere, but has thus far under Sanchez.
The Rebels just can’t match energy with talent.
They have for two weeks now struggled doing much at all offensively, a young line trying to afford inconsistent quarterbacks enough time to find wide receivers who aren’t winning near enough one-on-one battles. The running game must improve. Things are sputtering all over the place.
What shouldn’t happen, no matter the opponent, is a move away from the sort of creative play-calling we saw at Northern Illinois. Score and situations dictate most everything, but when you are a 35-point underdog, trailing 21-0 on your first possession of the second half and with the wind at your back, the last thing you should do is call three straight run plays, including one into the line on third-and-11.
But that’s what we got from UNLV on Saturday, a forgettable sequence from deep in its own territory. Were coaches afraid of a turnover and 28-0 deficit? What would it matter? Push forward. Open it up. Don’t run give-up plays on third-and-long when you haven’t to that point crossed midfield and then say afterward you came to win and not just stay close.
“We have to do everything better,” Sanchez said. “I love these big, tough games. I’m disappointed in the three weeks. That’s the whole mindset with these guys — not looking at it as this big, huge, giant task. It’s literally a four-quarter task each and every week. Winners find a way, and so do losers. We have to learn how to be winners.”
They might actually have a chance defensively, amazing when you consider how inept that side of the ball has been for years at UNLV and that the Rebels this season are allowing averages of 34 points and 482 yards. But they won’t face a better team than UCLA the rest of the way nor a bigger and stronger one than Michigan.
UNLV’s issue on defense is that as it continues to bend, you are almost certain things will break at some point with a big play from the opposition.
Maybe those times lessen now as the schedule softens.
Maybe lots of things get better against the likes of Idaho State and what is proving to be arguably the weakest collection of Mountain West teams in league history.
No one denied the first three games for UNLV were more brutal than inviting for a team with a new coaching staff and one lacking quality depth. That the Rebels are 0-3 hardly generates much surprise, but to summarily discard such results would be to dismiss reality. It doesn’t work like that.
The only way you turn that tomato from green to red is by winning games.
“We’ve got some scrappers, some kids who want to fight and win,” UNLV quarterback Blake Decker said. “Looking at the schedule the rest of the way, we’ll have opportunities to win every game. That’s our mindset. I love (Sanchez’s attitude). The guys love it. We love going in and hearing him motivate us. At the same time, it’s about winning, and he wants to win and he considers us a group of winners. But to do that, you can’t put up losses and call yourself winners.”
Translation: It’s a bottom line business.
The journey to respectability doesn’t allow for detours.
Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be a heard on “Seat and Ed” on Fox Sports 1340 from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. On Twitter: @edgraney