Friday, Oct. 17, 2003 | 9:54 a.m.
UNLV coach John Robinson refuses to use the "M" word when talking about Saturday afternoon's homecoming game against Mountain West Conference leading Utah (5-1, 2-0).
That's "M" as in "must" win.
A loss to the red-hot Utes would drop UNLV to 4-3 overall but 0-2 in MWC play. That would mean the Rebels would have to finish the season with a five-game winning streak to even have a chance of reaching their goal of winning the Mountain West championship. And even that might not be enough.
"This is a very important game for us," Robinson acknowledged. "We want to win this game."
When the subject of a possible 0-2 start was brought up, Robinson said simply, "All those are obvious numerical types of things."
Despite the fact the Rebels are coming off a 24-7 loss Saturday at Air Force, they still seem like a confident bunch heading into Saturday's game.
"Not every football team is going to go undefeated forever," junior linebacker Ryan Claridge said. "Ohio State got knocked off. We're capable of playing real good.
"In conference play anything can happen," Claridge continued. "They might be on a role but so are we. I don't think we're playing bad football. We might have had a few bad quarters but that doesn't mean we have a bad team. We're still playing good football and we're capable of playing even better football."
If UNLV could upset the Utes, it would ccreate quite a logjam in the Mountain West Conference standings. Every team would have at least one loss while two other schools, BYU and San Diego State, enter the weekend with two defeats.
The Rebels defense, which has forced 17 turnovers and held Big Ten power Wisconsin without a touchdown, figures to have one of its stiffest tests on Saturday against a Utah offense that is equally dangerous running or passing the football.
Utah has the conference's leading rusher in senior tailback Brandon Warfield (122.2 yards per game), the nation's leading receiver in Oregon-transfer Paris Warren (8.2 catches per game) and the hottest quarterback in the conference in sophomore Alex Smith, who has won the Mountain West Conference's offensive player of the week award each of the past two weeks and has yet to throw and interception this season.
"We've got to try and eliminate the big plays like we do every week," Claridge said. "They do a lot of things and they have a lot of razzle-dazzle."
UNLV has lost its past seven meetings against the Utes, including all four since the teams left the WAC and joined the Mountain West Conference in 1999.
"I've got tremendous respect for Coach Robinson and consider him a very good friend," Sanford said. "He's one of my coaching mentors."
Sanford was a backup quarterback to Vince Evans at USC in 1976, Robinson's first year as head coach after replacing legendary John McKay. He was a graduate assistant the following year for the Trojans working under the guidance of assistants Paul Hackett and Norv Turner, whose son, Scott, is now a backup quarterback at UNLV. Rebels assistant head coach John Jackson also was a member of that staff.
Sanford later coached Jackson's son, John Jackson Jr., who was Rodney Peete's favorite target at USC in the late '80s, as well as Robinson's son, David, a tight end at Long Beach State in 1984 and 1985 who is now UNLV's outside linebackers coach.
Sanford also coached under John Robinson for four years during his second stint at USC in the mid-'90s, recruiting and developing a brash junior college wide receiver named Keyshawn Johnson. Rebels assistant Brad Otton was the starting quarterback on the Trojans' 1996 Rose Bowl winning team.
Johnson was one of three first round NFL picks Sanford coached at USC. The other two were Curtis Conway and Johnnie Morton.
If that weren't enough ties for Sanford with the Rebels, his son, Mike Sanford Jr., is now a backup quarterback at Boise State behind WAC preseason offensive player of the year Ryan Dinwiddie. His roommate is Broncos punter Sean Steichen, brother of Rebels backup quarterback Shane Steichen.
The 2003 Homecoming King will be announced at halftime of Saturday's game.