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UNLV keeps it interesting, for whatever that’s worth

It’s all relative, especially when you are in the infant stages of rebuilding a college football program that has been as sound lately as that Disney stock in your deteriorating portfolio.

The gap is still wide. The cannon is still blue.

UNLV still exists miles and miles behind its rival.

But this wasn’t last year. This wasn’t that kind of loss to UNR, despite what you might imagine a 44-26 final score suggests.

The Wolf Pack couldn’t have flirted with 85 points this year. It wasn’t laughable this time. Nothing might soon touch the nightmare that was Reno/2009.

This was a 14-point game until the final minute of the third quarter, when the torrent that was UNR’s run game finally broke the dam that was UNLV’s conceding defense.

This was about as competitive as the Rebels could have hoped, given the difference in skill between the teams. This wasn’t the massacre many predicted, rather a beat-down by a Top 25 club at a Sam Boyd Stadium that couldn’t draw 30,000 for the home team’s biggest game.

UNLV covered the 20½-point spread. At some level in what this now one-sided series has become, that’s a start.

Mostly, what the loss offered was a serious glimpse at where UNLV first must improve if it ever hopes to see the Fremont Cannon red in the next several years. As it is, UNR has won six straight in the series, a first by either school.

It will become seven next year unless UNLV finds some bodies to fortify its offensive and defensive lines, which are being overmatched weekly by anyone not named New Mexico.

Stars don’t excite me, at least not ones assigned to football recruits. But while they might not chase the same names, UNR and UNLV often pursue players of the same ability. A two-star player here. A three-star player there.

Physically, the Rebels didn’t match up Saturday. That must change. They gained 80 yards on the ground and gave up 374. There were times when I swear UNR threw the ball just to prove it could.

Through four games, UNLV ranked 66th nationally in total defense, certainly not something to highlight on the athletic department website but an improvement over recent years.

The Rebels have been more aggressive on that side under first-year coach Bobby Hauck. There have been glimpses.

But they still get worn down because they can’t get off the darn field. They aren’t good enough where it counts most to slow an average running team, much less one with the attack of UNR.

Hauck might be searching for his quarterback of the future, but a priority has to be those up front blocking and tackling, or at least trying to.

It doesn’t get any easier. UNLV next visits a West Virginia team that enjoyed an off week to prepare. Air Force is here Nov. 18.

The Rebels could get run on big-time a few more times before this season ends unless they find some way, any way, to get off blocks and tackle people.

But you also have to accept small victories. A UNLV offense that ranked 95th nationally put up nearly six points more than its average. A passing game averaging 170 yards coming in had 214.

Phillip Payne caught eight balls for 170 yards for UNLV, and any minute now we have to believe the team’s offensive staff is going to break out game film from the past two years and realize that whole throw-him-the-fade-in-the-red-zone strategy actually worked.

UNR is very good. I don’t know if it’s great. It looked at times as if merely going through the motions, as if it knew the outcome was never in doubt and it needed to score just enough to make the pollsters believe for another week.

One good thing came of this for UNLV: It will never again have to prepare to defend Colin Kaepernick. The senior quarterback rushed for 97 yards and one touchdown and threw for 124 and another, not the kind of video game numbers he put up against the Rebels in the past, but solid just the same.

A kid named Cody Fajardo is redshirting as a true freshman this season and many believe he will be Kaepernick’s replacement. He was the state player of the year in California, but my guess is the Rebels will gladly welcome such a change.

They have bigger issues, anyway. They can’t run the ball or stop the run.

It makes for a long, long season.

Bottom line: This wasn’t that kind of loss. The cannon is still blue.

Just not as dark a shade.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618.

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