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Seniors seeing progress

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — As the seniors prepared for their final UNLV football game, four of the more prominent ones insisted the program is in better condition than when they arrived.

Of course, the win-loss record doesn’t back up that viewpoint, but those players said the talent is there. The problem is the players haven’t believed they could pick up the critical first down or make the key defensive stop.

If players begin to believe they can make such plays, the seniors said the results will match the talent.

“You’ve got to let them know, ‘If you want to freakin’ win, you just got to do it,’ ” Rebels linebacker Beau Bell said. “That’s the main thing, I think, is the mentality that you want to win. You’ve got to have it in you, and you’ve got to find the people that want to win.

“This whole season is full of mistakes. We can take five plays out of every game, and we’d probably lose only two of (those games), or one.”

UNLV (2-9, 1-6 Mountain West Conference) closes its season at 2:30 p.m. PST today against New Mexico (7-4, 4-3), the same place Mike Sanford coached his first game for the Rebels.

Since that 2005 season, Sanford still hasn’t been able to get the Rebels past the two-victory barrier. A victory against the 101/2-point favorite Lobos would end a three-year string of two-win seasons.

That would be the final contribution by these seniors.

Bell and guards Tim Goins and Mike McKiski entered the program when John Robinson was coach. They were there for Robinson’s final season in 2004, when the talent had dropped off noticeably from his earlier teams. Sanford has at least made the Rebels more competitive than in his first two seasons following Robinson.

“I think everything is in the right direction,” Goins said. “Lately, it’s been getting closer. I think we’ve been playing a lot more competitive. That’s one thing that I was appreciative of was that everybody fought hard. Things just didn’t work out the way we wanted them to, but next year, I think they’ll be on the up and up.”

The Rebels had chances this season to beat Wisconsin, UNR and Air Force but didn’t take advantage of opportunities.

“We need to improve on our finishing,” said McKiski, who went to Coronado High School. “We were in a lot of games.

“I think we do a lot of the small things right. We just can’t, for some reason, get that big one done.”

Senior cornerback Mil’Von James joined the program before Sanford’s first season, transferring from UCLA. James had seen Pac-10 Conference talent up close, and he agreed with his teammates that UNLV was on the right path.

“We can’t second-guess ourselves,” James said. “We can’t go out and say, ‘We’ve got next week.’ We’ve got to play hard each and every day. As soon as UNLV gets that mentality and each player gets that mentality, the sky’s the limit. The talent’s here, definitely.”

Get outside the team, though, and the argument the program is headed the right way becomes less convincing.

Unquestionably, results need to improve next season, or Sanford’s fourth could be his last. His toughest job might be convincing his players they are capable of difference-making plays.

“There’s a combination of knowing how to win, and there’s an experiential part of it, too,” Sanford said. “You never know in the course of a year what game or what set of games (will get you that experience). You can’t determine that until you look back (and see) what’s going to get you over the hump.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or (702) 387-2914.

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