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Cowboys hope Rebels won’t beat the spread

UNLV’s Mike Sanford understands better than most coaches the difficulty of what Wyoming’s Dave Christensen is trying to accomplish by radically changing the Cowboys’ offense in his first season.

Upon Sanford’s arrival for the 2005 season, he threw out the Rebels’ traditional two-back set in favor of the spread offense. The transition was messy; in Sanford’s first season UNLV averaged 18.8 points per game and went 2-9.

Similarly, Christensen has abandoned a power running game to implement the spread at Wyoming, which will host the Rebels at noon Saturday.

"The whole transition of going from primarily a run offense to a spread is difficult," Sanford said. "The hard thing is balancing out the scholarships because you need more receivers.

"Just looking at (Wyoming), I think it fits more who they are because the two really good running backs from last year are both gone."

Sanford finally has his players in place after a longer transition than he expected.

Not that the Rebels (2-1) have arrived, but their improvement is noticeable. Their scoring average jumped from 18.2 points in 2007 to 25.6 last year and is 31.0 through three games this year. They are averaging 412 yards, their most since averaging 417.3 in 1997.

Putting the right quarterback in place is likely the foremost reason, with Omar Clayton taking over last season. The junior has 3,235 passing yards, 221 shy of eighth place on the school’s career list.

Before Clayton, UNLV’s quarterback spot under Sanford resembled a never-ending audition, with the job held by the likes of Shane Steichen, Jarrod Jackson, Rocky Hinds and Travis Dixon.

"I think it’s a very difficult process," Sanford said. "I think, No. 1, finding a quarterback that fits the spread, but also finding quarterbacks that are good players in general.

"Guys you think are good players, they don’t turn out to be as good. So that’s a really hard position to evaluate."

Patience will be required at Wyoming as well. After the Cowboys (1-2) averaged a nation-worst 12.7 points last year, they are up to only 13.0 in 2009 and don’t have an offensive touchdown in their last nine quarters.

Those dismal stats prompted a change at quarterback this week, with Christensen inserting freshman Austyn Carta-Samuels for his first start. He came off the bench last week to replace junior Robert Benjamin during a 24-0 loss at Colorado and went 11-for-24 for 125 yards.

If Carta-Samuels is the long-term answer, the Cowboys’ transition to the spread will prove faster than UNLV’s was.

"I feel real good about where we’re at from a quarterback standpoint," Christensen said. "We’ve got the right guy there. We’ve got to have a lot more accountability by those surrounding guys."

The judgment of whether the spread is a success at Wyoming was never going to be made this season anyway.

"It’s hard to put a time frame on it," Christensen said. "We’re continuing to recruit the same way we did (for our first recruiting class). … We’ve got a lot of work to do from that standpoint.

"We’re pleased with the young kids, but they don’t have a lot of experience. We don’t have a lot of depth yet at any of the positions offensively."

Christensen and Sanford are coaches with common backgrounds. Both became head coaches after being offensive coordinators at schools where the spread yielded success — Sanford at Utah and Christensen at Missouri.

That offense has become the rage nationally. It can be dynamic. But it also can be difficult to implement.

"It’s got its growing pains," Christensen said.

He and Sanford have seen that firsthand.

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Read the latest UNLV football updates at lvrj.com/blogs/unlv_sports.

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