ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Few people are more optimistic than UNLV football coach Mike Sanford.
He not only speaks hopefully about winning each week, he seems to truly believe the Rebels will accomplish the task no matter how difficult the challenge, no matter how many doubters snicker.
Finally, here’s a chance for the Rebels (2-5, 0-3 Mountain West Conference) to meet Sanford’s expectations and win without stunning those outside the program. In fact, this is a game they must win, facing possibly the nation’s worst team in New Mexico (0-6, 0-2) at 5 p.m. PDT today.
"A win this week is extremely crucial for us," UNLV quarterback Omar Clayton said.
The Rebels have lost when they were favored (Wyoming), lost to a winless team (UNR) and lost three times by at least 20 points (UNR, Brigham Young and Utah).
Those losses make up the team’s four-game skid, which is nothing compared to the ongoing school-record 20-game conference losing streak.
The Lobos’ only close game this season was a 20-17 defeat to New Mexico State. Their other losses have been by at least 20 points.
New Mexico is last in the MWC in scoring offense, scoring defense, total offense, pass defense, turnover margin, first downs, third-down conversions and sacks allowed.
The Lobos will be without coach Mike Locksley, who was suspended for one game for an altercation with an assistant. Assistant head coach George Barlow is handling the head coaching responsibilities.
"Even though it’s an interim coach, I’ve got a feeling that Mike Locksley’s very involved," Sanford said. "We expect to see their best. Our biggest concern is improving ourselves. We’ve got enough concerns within our own deal."
The Rebels have had a season’s worth of worries in the past month, but if they play up to their capabilities, they could record an easy victory. And maybe a month ago, oddsmakers would have agreed without qualifications.
But those setting the lines have gone back and forth on this point spread for a reason. UNLV was as much as a 3-point favorite, New Mexico once was a 1-point favorite, and the line now is at pick ’em.
Sanford’s job status comes more into question with each defeat, and this week’s development of a speeded-up search for a permanent athletic director doesn’t temper the talk.
Imagine what a loss to New Mexico would do.
"Our deal is continuing to fight," Sanford said.
Sanford isn’t blind to the speculation, but he has tried to remain focused on winning games. A victory tonight might have little bearing on his long-term prospects at UNLV, but at least it would stem some of the negativity.
For a week anyway. A trip to Texas Christian, which is trying to make a BCS bowl game, is on the schedule for next Saturday.
But UNLV’s players could at least take a little momentum into that game as well as new-found confidence.
"This game is big," Rebels wide receiver Phillip Payne said. "We need to get a win somewhere. I think that will make it carry over to other weeks and get a string going."
The Rebels need it. Otherwise, ugly will only begin to describe the already cloudy atmosphere that surrounds the program.
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Read the latest UNLV football updates at lvrj.com/blogs/unlv_sports.GAME DAY
• UNLV VS. NEW MEXICO
• WHEN: 5 p.m. today
• WHERE: University Stadium, Albuquerque, N.M.
• TV/RADIO: The Mtn. (334), KWWN-AM (1100)
• LINE: Pick; total 59