Veteran Rebels out to prevent ambush

With Labor Day weekend coming up and more notable opponents later in UNLV’s football schedule, many fans will find other ways to spend their time Saturday than drive to Sam Boyd Stadium to see the Rebels play Sacramento State.

Most of those who show up to what probably will be a more than half-empty stadium will expect a breather of a season opener.

And they should. UNLV drops down to play the Hornets, a Football Championship Subdivision school, and anything less than an easy victory in the 7 p.m. game will be considered disappointing.

“I think the bottom line is no matter who you play, no matter what the situation, you’ve got to go out and play great,” coach Mike Sanford said. “My expectation for our team is to go out and play great and not have anything short of that.”

But there are two words of warning — Colorado State.

Sacramento State nearly beat the Rams last season in Fort Collins, Colo. Colorado State emerged a 23-20 victor after two field goals by kicker Ben DeLine in the final 1:29.

“It shows they were able to play with that team, but that was last year,” UNLV quarterback Omar Clayton said. “We’re not Colorado State.”

It’s easy to argue UNLV’s situation is far different.

The Rebels return a veteran team and coaching staff, and the number of unknowns isn’t high. UNLV also improved by three victories last season, so it appears to be a building program, though there’s still plenty to prove.

Colorado State had a new coach last year, and the Rams had much to figure out concerning personnel. This wasn’t close to the Colorado State team that later beat UNLV, defeated Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl and finished 7-6.

The Hornets would wind up going 6-6, including 3-5 in the Big Sky Conference.

“We weren’t hitting on all cylinders when we played that game, but I don’t want to sell them short,” Colorado State coach Steve Fairchild said. “I don’t know what they have this year, but they were a very good defensive football team and had some talent at running back.”

The Hornets lost five defensive starters, but their entire line returns. Their leading rusher from last year, Bryan Hilliard (1,082 yard, 12 TDs), is out for the season following surgery on both shoulders.

Quarterback Jason Smith is back after throwing for 1,824 yards and 16 touchdowns.

The last thing the Rebels want to do is take an opponent lightly, and college football’s start a week later than previous seasons certainly has fed into their hunger to want to beat someone — anyone.

Even if that opponent is Sacramento State, a team picked by the Big Sky coaches and media to finish seventh in the nine-team league.

If Colorado State provides a warning to UNLV, three other words provide inspiration — San Diego State.

The Rebels have not forgotten the bitterness of that season-ending defeat that crushed their bowl hopes. This also was a San Diego State team that had lost to FCS member Cal Poly. The Rebels have waited more than nine months to take out their frustrations.

“We’re going to make sure we don’t let that happen again,” UNLV tailback Channing Trotter said. “… We’re going to make sure we beat them and continue to roll through the rest of the season.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Read the latest UNLV football updates at lvrj.com/blogs/unlv_sports.

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