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UNLV still trying to play ‘best ball’ while eyeing conference title

UNLV has put together a historic season in the first year under coach Barry Odom, and the Rebels continue to exceed expectations with each victory.

Yet there is a legitimate belief in the shiny new football facility on campus that the team is only scratching the surface of its potential.

“We’re learning every day in pursuit of what we need to do to play our best ball,” Odom said. “We haven’t done it yet, so that’s our focus.”

The Rebels (7-2, 4-1 Mountain West) will need to find that level if they are to achieve their ultimate goal of reaching the Mountain West championship game for the first time in program history.

It’s well within reach if they take care of their own business, but that entails navigating a difficult closing stretch that starts against Wyoming (6-3, 3-2) at 7:45 p.m. Friday at Allegiant Stadium. A loss would be crippling to their chances.

The Rebels are tied for second with Fresno State (8-1, 4-1), a game behind Air Force (8-1, 5-0).

There are reasons to believe the Rebels are still improving, starting with quarterback Jayden Maiava. The redshirt freshman is coming off his most efficient game of the season in a 56-14 win over New Mexico.

Maiava earned his third conference freshman of the week award, connecting on 13 of 18 passes for 247 yards and three touchdowns. He had no turnovers or sacks while connecting on all five attempts on third down.

His success comes as no surprise to his teammates.

“We always say he’ll do anything to get a play going,” junior tight end Kaleo Ballungay said. “He’s not scared to make a play, and he’s shown that in the games. He’ll throw the ball anywhere just to move the sticks and get the ball moving.”

Maiava, a Liberty High School alum, is 5-1 as a starter and appears to be getting more comfortable as the year progresses.

“I think he’s played better each week with the experience and reps he’s gotten,” Odom said. “I think his reads have gotten better every week. This week in particular, he was able to connect (on some deep balls). He continues to elevate in those areas of his game as well. I think the timing with the offense, he’s in a flow. Then the leadership of what that position needs to look like, he’s grown in that role every single week.”

The ability to connect on those deep shots is a potential game-changer for an offense that could greatly benefit from even the threat of big plays down the field, which could open up even more running lanes for a dynamic ground attack.

“If they’re giving you those things, you better be able to take advantage of it,” Odom said. “We’ve been able to do it at times this year. We haven’t been real consistent, but I think the timing, the understanding, working together, we’ve gotten a little bit better every week. And we’ll be better this week than we were last week.”

It also helps to have a deep threat like Ricky White III, the reigning conference offensive player of the week. He hauled in eight catches for 165 yards against New Mexico, including two long touchdowns, despite sitting out much of the second half in a blowout.

White leads the Mountain West and is 11th in the nation with 98.2 receiving yards per game and needs just 116 yards to be the first Rebel in a decade to eclipse 1,000 yards in a season.

White has always possessed elite receiving skills, but Odom said his leap has come from his work ethic, leadership and willingness to block.

“He’s one of the elite receivers in college football and the (acrobatic catch) the other day down the field was a huge play, but maybe in my mind the two on third down when he caught close to the sticks and he got the first down were just as big,” Odom said. “And his ability to block out in space in perimeter run support, and how he’s able to spring guys free, and his effort without the ball, all go into the complete player he is.”

The offense will look to keep the momentum going, but the defense will also have to continue doing its part against a Cowboys team that is far more physical than explosive offensively. Linebacker Jackson Woodard knows the challenge ahead.

“We’ve gone against a lot of physical teams. New Mexico was physical. Michigan, Fresno too. But Wyoming is very physical,” he said. “They have a lot of players who do things right. They’re going to want to run the ball, and it will be up to us to stop it. I’ve seen on tape that they are a very physical team.

“Every game we take pride in wanting to win, but especially at home where our fans are there to support us and create that home field advantage. So we’ll do everything to protect our place and win this ballgame.”

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on X.

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