With home games against Wisconsin, Hawaii and Utah following Thursday’s season opener, it would be easy for UNLV to overlook Utah State.
Even though the Rebels are favored by a touchdown against the Aggies in Logan, Utah, Utah State has looked beatable before.
The Aggies took the field at Sam Boyd Stadium in 2004 as 13-point underdogs, and left as 31-21 winners. In 2005, they hosted UNLV as 3 1/2-point underdogs, and sent the Rebels home with a 31-24 defeat.
Utah State should, to say the least, have UNLV’s attention.
"We can’t overlook anybody," UNLV coach Mike Sanford said. "The way I look at it, ‘favored’ doesn’t mean anything by either team. You can’t ever play up or down to your opponents, and that’s one of things that I’ve really made a big push on in this team.
"I think that’s been a problem in recent history."
The Aggies have dominated the series, winning nine of the past 10 meetings. For the first eight games of the series, both schools were members of the Big West Conference and were considered more or less on equal footing.
UNLV’s move to the Mountain West Conference in 2004 put the Rebels in a higher rated conference.
The Rebels demonstrated their superiority during that 2004 game by outgaining Utah State 550 yards to 291.
But UNLV quarterback Kurt Nantkes threw four interceptions, including one that was returned 90 yards for a touchdown. Rebels tight end Kevin Baird dropped a fourth-and-goal pass in the end zone.
John Robinson, the UNLV coach at the time, said that game reminded him of when the Rebels pulled off a 23-5 upset at No. 14 Wisconsin in 2003.
"You look at the way that chain of events starts happening, and you can’t control it," Robinson said.
"At Wisconsin when we beat them, they fumbled (four) times. Suddenly, it’s like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ It’s one of those games as a head coach, you can’t say, ‘Hey, fellas, stop fumbling.’ Psychologically, it’s very difficult."
The loss to Utah State dropped the Rebels to 0-4, and Robinson announced the following day he would retire at season’s end.
UNLV, which defeated UNR and Brigham Young the following two weeks, would go on to finish 2-9.
Sanford took over, and his Rebels were 1-2 and coming off a 22-14 loss at UNR entering the Utah State game. They once again outgained the Aggies — 387 yards to 283 yards.
UNLV led 24-16 in the third quarter, but Utah State scored late in that period and nearly midway through the fourth to win 31-24.
The loss left a bitter taste, and UNLV would win just once more, 13-10 over San Diego State, en route to another 2-9 mark.
"It’s one of those games — it’s a must-win game," said Shane Steichen, UNLV’s quarterback that night and now a volunteer coach. "It’s one of those things you’ve got to get done. If you don’t, you feel like crap all next week."
Worse for Steichen, he broke a finger on his nonthrowing hand. Though he finished the game, Steichen missed the next six.
So here the Rebels are favored again. If history has taught them anything, it’s they should never take Utah State lightly — even if a series of daunting opponents follows.
"I think it was indicative of the way our season went that year (2005)," Sanford said. "Except on very rare occasions, we didn’t make the plays or do the things that you have to do to win. The only time we did that was against Idaho and San Diego State that year, but there’s no question we should’ve beaten Utah State.
"We had our opportunities to win, and we didn’t do the things that you’ve got to do to win. That’s the thing that this football team’s got to be able to do this year."UNLV Football
HINDS ATTENDING CLASSES AT UNLV UNLV junior quarterback Rocky Hinds was on campus Monday attending the first day of classes, but he is not participating in practices or team meetings as he rehabilitates his right knee. Hinds underwent anterior cruciate ligament surgery in January, and suffered a setback early in training camp. A later test revealed a 50 percent tear in the cadaver graft placed in his knee. "To me, there are a lot of unknowns about what’s going to happen in the future," Rebels coach Mike Sanford said. "Right now, he’s got to rehab the knee and find out if he can go." Sanford said more should be known about Hinds’ condition in about three weeks. REVIEW-JOURNAL