Learning to win close games is a major challenge for any downtrodden football program, and UNLV lost its first three games this season by a total of 14 points.
But that could be considered a good sign for the Rebels.
“Shoot, I would say the biggest challenge is getting into close games,” third-year coach Bobby Hauck said. “We were so outmatched in some of these games early on (the past two seasons). Our guys have not given me the impression one time at all in one of these close games that they’re out over their skis.”
The Rebels, 10½-point underdogs, hope they have the chance to make the fourth quarter meaningful tonight against an opponent that has owned the series.
Air Force (1-1) has beaten the Rebels (0-3) five consecutive times and nine of their past 10 meetings. They play each other in the Mountain West Conference opener for both teams at 7 p.m. at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Falcons coach Troy Calhoun, however, tried to lower expectations this week when he pointed out UNLV is much more competitive at home against his team, which has just five returning starters.
He’s right. UNLV led 17-14 at halftime two years ago before losing 35-20, and the Rebels lost 29-28 in 2008 on a 19-yard field goal with 2:36 left.
In 2006, UNLV ended its season with a 42-39 victory over the Falcons.
Rebels offensive tackle Yusef Rodgers acknowledged the challenge of playing a team like Air Force but said the degree of difficulty also fires him up.
“This will be my third time playing Air Force,” Rodgers said. “I actually enjoy playing Air Force. I love playing against those guys.”
The Falcons and their triple-option offense present a unique challenge among Mountain West teams.
They always have a strong running attack and currently lead the nation with 387 yards per game. Cody Getz has 348 yards and six touchdowns.
Air Force passes enough, with quarterback Connor Dietz averaging 134.5 yards, to keep opposing defenses from loading up too often to stop the run.
The Falcons’ defense has had its difficulties. Air Force has allowed 140 yards rushing per game and 286.5 passing.
So this might be a chance for running back Tim Cornett and quarterback Nick Sherry to make plays for UNLV. Cornett has rushed for 357 yards and three touchdowns, and Sherry has thrown for 712 yards and four TDs.
As much improvement as UNLV’s offense has shown, however, the Rebels have had difficulty finishing drives. Their yardage average is up from 273.7 per game last season to 389.7 this year, but the scoring average has increased only from 17.2 to 22.7 points per game.
“Last weekend (against Washington State), we left a few too many plays out there,” Hauck said of the 35-27 loss. “There were opportunities to get a little bit more, which is what we needed.”
Maybe UNLV won’t leave many points on the field tonight.
Maybe the Rebels finally will leave Sam Boyd Stadium with a victory.
They know this game probably won’t be easy, but neither has it been a joy absorbing three painful defeats in a row.
It’s a trend – and an experience – they badly want to reverse.
“There’s a chip on our shoulders knowing that we’ve got to win some games,” Sherry said. “We’ve been right there in every game, and we’ve got to start winning.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.AIR FORCE VS. UNLV
■ WHEN: 7 p.m. today
■ WHERE: Sam Boyd Stadium
■ TV/RADIO: MeTV (129), KWWN (1100 AM, 98.9 FM)
■ LINE: Air Force -10 1/2; total 55