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UNLV game at Idaho carries even bigger meaning after Howard loss

Updated September 6, 2017 - 12:58 pm

Sometimes, the angle changes faster than Caylin Newton beating another UNLV defender to the edge.

I planned on writing this week about how a football game at Idaho on Saturday would qualify as the most important in the tenure of head coach Tony Sanchez, that it would not only present an opportunity for the Rebels to begin a season 2-0 for the first time since 1999, but one that could set up a run to a postseason bowl berth.

The thinking went that if UNLV beat the Vandals it wouldn’t have to record an upset based on likely point spreads the remainder of the season to reach six wins.

That the Rebels could merely defeat those they’re supposed to and not have to worry about taking down a San Diego State or Air Force or Brigham Young or, fantasies to the level there will be no more deaths in the House of Lannister once those dragons return, Ohio State.

Then the thinking crumbled under the most disheartening of performances: Howard 43, UNLV 40.

Did that nonsense really happen?

Make no mistake, the team that plays its home games in a northern Idaho city along the Washington state border, that welcomes visitors to a 15,200-seat multipurpose indoor athletic complex called the Kibbie Dome, that will drop to a (Howard level) of Football Championship Subdivision status next season, still represents a massively significant matchup for UNLV.

But while the immediacy a 2017 season is one thing, a larger picture of how and why UNLV just suffered the worst loss by point spread in college football history is another.

Some bad habits are formed over decades, and things like substandard defensive play defined by abysmal tackling have seemingly taken up permanent residence within the Rebels program.

It’s not a Howard thing.

It’s a culture thing.

Winning at Idaho won’t cure that, but for the mental health of a team that just endured the sort of 24-hour national news cycle no program ever desires pointed in its direction, success in Moscow could temper the fury of those who expected a much better beginning to a third season under Sanchez.

“In this day and age, things can get crazy,” he said. “So the key for us is to silence the noise and focus on things you can control. Our backs are against the wall. There was so much excitement coming into the year. People were really fired up. All of that got the wind knocked out of it (Saturday), but the biggest thing is, we as leaders have to convey to the kids there is no reason to panic.

“Stay the course and see things through. A lot of football to play. There’s a lot talk going on outside and it’s not healthy for them to pay attention to. Learn from it. Cowboy up. Own it. Move on, and let’s go.”

He responded to a question Tuesday about his job status by saying any such examination at this point is absurd, and he’s right. My goodness. He’s one game into a third season and has single-handedly raised the majority of funds that have been pledged for what will be a $28 million, potentially program-changing football complex.

That building — when construction begins is unknown given reports that less than half of $18 million promised has been collected — means Sanchez has already done more off the field for UNLV’s program than any head coach in its history.

Mike Sanford won four games his first two seasons. Bobby Hauck also won four.

Sanchez won seven.

It’s hardly stuff of Alabama — or even Boise State — but everything is relative.

Sanchez then went on to tell, in small parts, the fable of the old man, the boy and the donkey, about those who listen to their critics are destined to lose their, well, you know.

Which means he is either versed in ancient Greek storytelling or those Tuesday press conferences are really getting loopy.

But he’s also smart enough to know Howard wasn’t just one game. It was an inexcusable result that will stick with the Rebels beyond what happens at Idaho and perhaps the entire season.

It’s on him and his staff to change a narrative that has may now questioning the program’s overall direction.

Perception. Reality. It’s all one entity now.

That’s what happens when you lose to Howard as a 45-point favorite.

UNLV can clean up things like false starts and bad snaps and untimely substitutions. It lost three fumbles all last year, so to have three against Howard is probably more isolated occurrence than season-long worry. But the defense and tackling are more systematic issues that can’t be completely repaired in one night along the Washington state border.

Idaho was a big game before Howard.

It’s even more so now, but for reasons other than originally thought.

Can a season be saved or totally derailed in Week 2?

Can the outside noise become even louder for a head coach just beginning his third season?

We’re about to find out.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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