Rebels’ crossroad comes early again

Many football teams are accustomed to playing critical games late in the season when bowl bids and conference championships are on the line.

Not so with UNLV.

Crossroad games often come early for the Rebels, and only four games in, they face one today when Utah visits Sam Boyd Stadium at 7 p.m.

Beat the Utes (1-2, 0-1 Mountain West) to open league play, and UNLV (1-2) has new life. The Rebels could signal a positive change in the program’s fortunes by winning a conference opener for the first time in 12 years.

But a loss probably would set the stage for another long year, after three consecutive two-win seasons.

“This game is one of our last shots as far as a team momentum builder to get us started on a good streak,” Rebels defensive end Jeremy Geathers said. “This game (means) a lot for our team.”

Beating Utah probably won’t be easy. The Utes are 8-point favorites and have scored double-digit victories over the Rebels 11 times in a row.

The Utes appeared to be vulnerable after some devastating injuries and an 0-2 start this season. But Utah stunned UCLA 44-6 last Saturday.

“Any time you can take a No. 11 team and beat them by as many points as they did, that’s an eye opener,” UNLV guard Mike McKiski said.

Utes also might get quarterback Brian Johnson back from a separated right shoulder. If not, Tommy Grady looked sharp in throwing three touchdown passes against the Bruins.

This is a big game for Utah as well, as it tries to put together a fifth consecutive winning season and establish itself as a strong contender in a wide-open conference race.

It’s a familiar position for the Utes.

UNLV last played meaningful November games in 2003, when it finished 6-6.

In 2004, coach John Robinson’s final season, the disturbing trend of make-or-break early season games began. At 0-3, the Rebels had to beat Utah State to have any chance to salvage their year but lost, 31-21. They wound up 2-9.

Another game against Utah State determined the course of the 2005 season. The Rebels were 1-2 and coming off a difficult 22-14 loss at UNR. Their 31-24 defeat at Logan, Utah, sent coach Mike Sanford’s first UNLV season into a 2-9 spiral.

The Rebels were in a similar position last season at 1-2, when UNR routed them 42-13 at Sam Boyd. UNLV did not win again until the finale, going 2-10.

Sanford was careful not to place much weight on today’s game, saying history has taught him that preconceived ideas about certain big games often are later proved wrong.

History will determine this game’s importance, but the Rebels certainly don’t want to put themselves in the position of having to rally from another slow start.

History, in that regard, is against them — especially recent history.

UNLV opened last season with a victory over an inferior opponent (Idaho State), nearly upset a name team from a Bowl Championship Series conference (Iowa State) and then was routed by Hawaii. Just like this season so far.

“What I say isn’t going to make any difference,” Sanford said. “It’s going to be what we prove on the field, and this is a different team. It’s a different season.”

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