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University of Nevada, Las Vegas

I suspected that UNLV's football team would have to crash back to reality at some point. Last wee, the team and its fans were flying high after a comeback win against Colorado State made UNLV bowl-eligible midway through the season, had them receiving votes for national Top 25 ranking, and had them looking like a contender for a Mountain West Conference Championship. UNLV has played like a championship-caliber football team all season long, with the exception of one quarter against Fresno State last night. That one quarter may be the quarter that costs UNLV a chance at the championship.

I did say that the remainder of UNLV's schedule would contain its toughest matchups of the season, and Fresno was one of the toughest. They also still have Wyoming and Air Force as major roadblocks on their remaining schedule. I expected that UNLV would drop at least one of these games, but it's heartbreaking to lose it in the way that they did.

UNLV is now ranked 3rd in the Mountain West behind Fresno State.

UNLV was in total control of the game at Fresno State, with the exception of a dismal 3rd quarter in which they turned the ball over multiple times, gave up 24 un-answered points, and surrendered the lead that they would never take back.

The collapse began on the opening drive of the 2nd half, with Jacob de Jesus muffing a punt return after a Fresno 3 and out. This gave Fresno State the ball in the redzone for an easy touchdown and completely shifted the momentum of the game. Junior return man de Jesus had been a reliable, explosive player all year, and this mistake was uncharacteristic of him. Later in the quarter, freshman quarterback Jayden Maiava threw an interception that resulted in another Fresno field goal, and running back Jai'Den Thomas surrendered a fumble on UNLV's next offensive play from scrimmage that Fresno converted into the lead-stealing touchdown. Personally, I think he was down by contact (of course), but the camera angles were inconclusive and insufficient to overturn the officials' call on the field.

The 3rd quarter collapse started
with Jacob de Jesus muffing a punt.

UNLV would surge in the 4th quarter, however and bring the game to within a single score. However, they failed to convert a 4th and goal late in the 4th quarter. Personally, I think that coach Barry Odom should have kicked the field goal at this point. There was still 5 minutes on the game clock, UNLV had timeouts, and UNLV had clawed back the momentum. This was not a do-or-die situation. A field goal would not have tied the game, let alone taken the lead, but UNLV's defense would have to make a stop regardless. A field goal would have meant that if UNLV stopped Fresno and took the ball back, they would be playing for the win instead of overtime.

The decision ended up being moot anyway, as UNLV failed to score a touchdown in the closing seconds of the game. They had an opportunity, but senior receiver Senika McKie dropped an open pass in the endzone on 2nd down, and Maiava would throw an interception straight to a lurking linebacker on the ensuing 3rd and goal.

A culture of winning

McKie looked like he was shouldering the full weight of the loss after that drop. I understand why he would feel that way, but that's being unfair to himself. Coach Odom even embraced him after the drop and reassured him that he shouldn't blame himself, showing excellent player-driven leadership. The loss wasn't McKie's fault. It wasn't any single player's fault. UNLV made mistakes on offense, defense, and special teams that cost them the victory. If de Jesus hadn't muffed that second half punt, maybe Fresno State never steals the momentum to begin with. If quarterback Jayden Maiava doesn't make bad decisions that result in interceptions, and running back Jai'Den Thomas had held onto the ball more securely, UNLV could potentially have scored enough to keep the lead regardless of a surging Fresno offense. And if the defense didn't expose their trademark weakness of giving up deep passes down the field, then Fresno's offense may never have surged to begin with. There was plenty of blame to go around.

I don't know what coach Odom said to Senika McKie, but the body language
looks to me like he was telling him that the loss isn't on his shoulders.

Yet despite all those failures, UNLV still had 2 opportunities late in the 4th quarter to tie (or potentially win) the game. They fought hard through the adversity and almost overcame their self-inflicted wounds. That shows a toughness and grit that I haven't seen from this team in the entire 30 years that I've been loyally watching them. The culture of this organization looks like it is finally shifting. UNLV football is turning into a winning organization -- not just because they are winning, but because they are playing like they believe they can win any game, against any opponent. I don't know if this culture flip is due entirely to coach Odom's leadership, or maybe it goes back to the incremental yearly improvements that we saw during Arroyo's surprisingly short tenure. Or heck, maybe it even goes back to Tony Sanchez, who fought hard to secure funding for a new athletic training facility, and who was advocating for UNLV to play in a new stadium before the Raiders moved to Vegas and made a new stadium an inevitability. We can argue all day whether Arroyo deserved to be fired, but I don't think we can argue against the success of Barry Odom. The results speak for themselves.

I've been long saying that UNLV needs to hire a head coach with more of a defensive background. They have finally done that with Barry Odom, and the results are a much more competitive team. They aren't giving up 40 or 50 points every game, and even though the defense has given up more than its share of deep passes, it has largely played well and kept UNLV in games. So regardless of how I felt about Arroyo's firing, I am very happy with the hiring of Odom.

UNLV doesn't look like the same old Rebels anymore. But the transformation isn't complete. UNLV played one quarter of "old UNLV" football, and it cost them control over their Cinderella Conference Championship hopes.

But the season isn't over yet, and UNLV may still make that Cinderella run. They are currently tied with Fresno and Boise State for 2nd in the conference (with Fresno having the head-to-head tie-breaker), and they still have a game against Air Force. Boise has also been climbing the conference standing, and they also still have matchups against Fresno and Air Force. If UNLV can sweep its remaining schedule -- which is doable because UNLV's stout running defense actually matches up well against Air Force -- and if Fresno and Boise take losses, then UNLV can still play a championship game against Air Force. Alternatively, if Boise can knock off both Fresno and Air Force, then UNLV can still find itself in a championship game against Boise.

Air Force
Photo credit: United State Air Force Academy.
Boise State
Photo credit: KTV Boise.
UNLV still has a matchup against undefeated Air Force, and needs help from Boise State to stay in contention.

Oh, and I doubt UNLV will be seeing any more votes for Top 25 rankings this season, unless they manage to sweep their remaining schedule and make it to that championship game...

Regardless, UNLV is still already bowl-eligible, with 2 or 3 winnable games left on their schedule. A 7, 8, or 9-win season, and a bowl berth are still very much in the cards. Regardless of how the 2023 season ends, there will be excitement for UNLV's next football season, the likes of which I have never seen in my lifetime!

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