Each successive win by Barry Odom’s Rebels serves to rewrite a bit more of the narrative about a UNLV football program that once felt perpetually doomed to irrelevance.
A new chapter was authored Friday night as the Rebels defeated Wyoming 34-14 at Allegiant Stadium to secure their eighth win of the season for just the fourth time since moving to Division I in 1978.
It looked like it was going to be easy. UNLV (8-2, 5-1 Mountain West) scored on its first three possessions and led 21-0 before allowing Wyoming to rally within 21-14, with the ball in the red zone late in the first half.
Cameron Oliver came up with a spectacular interception at the goal line just before intermission, and the Rebels shut out Wyoming (6-4, 3-3) the rest of the way.
Now, the Rebels are squarely in the mix for a conference title. UNLV plays at Mountain West leader Air Force (8-1, 5-0) next week with a chance to at least tie for first place. The Falcons played Hawaii late Saturday.
Before the season, a media member who picked the Rebels to win the league was mocked and ridiculed for voting them in the top spot in the preseason poll.
Who’s laughing now?
“We talked when we started building this together that we don’t want to be judged on anything that happened before we started together,” UNLV coach Barry Odom said late Friday. “That’s only fair. Let’s judge on what this team does.”
That body of work has been remarkable. UNLV leads the nation in rushing touchdowns with 31, three ahead of Oregon. Redshirt freshman quarterback Jayden Maiava, a local from Liberty High School, took over for an injured Doug Brumfield and has put his stamp on the offense, growing more and more comfortable each week.
Wide receiver Ricky White caught eight passes for 174 yards and became the first Rebel with 1,000 receiving yards in a season in a decade. He can tie the school record of 1,346 yards set by Jim Sandusky in 1981 with 318 more yards.
The defense has been stout all year long and has had different players step up to make key plays throughout the season.
And it all starts with Odom and a staff, including innovative offensive coordinator Brennan Marion, that convinced the players they weren’t destined to mediocrity just because of the program’s past.
“I didn’t want the history of what this program has been, good and bad, to define this team,” Odom said. “It’s a new team. It’s a blank sheet. You’ve got the pen in your hand, and you get to write your own story. I think that’s a really good approach when you look at life. There will be things handed to you that maybe you did or did not earn up to that point. Let’s change the narrative.”
The approach has worked.
UNLV will play in a bowl game for just the fifth time in the Division I era. They are ranked as the No. 34 team in the country, according to RealTimeRPI, ahead of traditional powers like Clemson and Texas A&M.
The season is an unmitigated success even if the Rebels don’t win another game.
But they aren’t done writing their story.
UNLV could even host the Mountain West championship game should things break right. The Rebels don’t fully control their own destiny, but there is a legitimate path.
UNLV is still just trying to write the end of its own tale.
“Our approach has to be controlling what we can control every single day, on preparing very well, on developing practice habits that equate to winning performance on game days,” Odom said. “Not looking at the big picture, but focusing on the moment at hand. We’re all built from experiences and opportunities and moments. This was the next one for us.
“A really good win tonight, and I’m excited for our team and our program. On to the next.”
Who: UNLV at Air Force
When: 12:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Falcon Stadium, Colorado Springs, Colo.
Radio: KWWN (1100 AM, 100.9 FM)