Monday, Sept. 29, 2008 | 2:01 a.m.
One of the most interesting developments of the football season as it steams toward the halfway point is that UNLV is competitive again, Saturday night’s 49-27 cannon-izing by rival UNR notwithstanding.
The second is that Chancellor Jim Rogers has called Rebels coach Mike Sanford not once, but twice, to congratulate him. Did it after the Arizona State win and again after the Iowa State win. In fact, Rogers said he called Sanford twice last year — after a competitive loss to Wisconsin and one another one he couldn’t remember. Rogers said Sanford thought that was strange, because the Rebels lost, and you’re not supposed to congratulate coaches when they lose.
Rogers and Sanford aren’t exactly best pals, because a couple of years ago Rogers wrote this memo to the higher-ups at UNLV saying that although Sanford wasn’t the problem with the football program, the program had problems he couldn’t fix.
That these two have achieved gridiron glasnost shows how competitive UNLV had become before Saturday night. At least Rogers won’t feel compelled to place another congratulatory phone call to Sanford this week, freeing the chancellor to write more memos to Gov. Jim Gibbons, in the hope Gibbons will write a check that will enable UNLV to have an English department next year.
Sanford also should write a memo. Maybe he can contact Frank Broyles, the old Arkansas coach, and ask him how to defend the option.
The Rebels made Colin Kaepernick, the UNR quarterback, look like James Street and J.C. Watts all rolled into one, which isn’t far from the truth, considering those guys were both about 5-foot-9 and Kaepernick stands 6-6. But he has a stride like Secretariat, and when the Rebels left the barn door open, it looked like the 1973 Belmont, with the exception that UNLV actually led by 10 points early.
By the fourth quarter, however, Kaepernick and the Wolf Pack were 31 lengths in front. Like Big Red, Kaepernick was running like a tremendous machine. He finished with 240 rushing yards — 416 altogether — and five touchdowns. It looked like James Street against Rice or Baylor, with the exception that Kaepernick also passed for 176 yards, completing 11 of 16.
Kaepernick was just leaving the starting gate when a colleague asked what I thought after a first quarter in which UNLV built a 17-7 lead.
“If you’re asking if I think it’s over, the answer is ‘no,’ ” I said, because unlike him, I was old enough to remember the Texas and Oklahoma wishbones and I could tell the Rebels were having great difficulty dealing with UNR’s version of the triple-option offense. Heck, the two people sitting alone in the top row on the UNR side of the field could see that.
Afterward, Sanford said UNLV practiced against the option ad nauseam and we’ll have to take him at his word, because practice at UNLV is closed. But I believe him, because even if you spend half of practice working against the option, when it’s being run by a walk-on quarterback, it isn’t the same, even if the walk-on is J.C. Watts’ second cousin.
So after taking two big steps forward in the past two weeks, the program took a giant step backward, because losing to your biggest rival for the fourth time in a row — at home, in front of a big crowd, no less — in a game in which defensive shortcomings are exposed like an old roll of film is never encouraging.
Before the UNR game, Frank Summers, the star UNLV running back who was stuffed like a pizza crust by the Wolf Pack defense, said if the Rebels didn’t beat UNR, those three wins coming in wouldn’t mean anything. This is why reporters shouldn’t write down everything players say, especially before a rivalry game, because UNLV could have lost 100-0 to UNR, and the win at Arizona State would still count for something. And I still think at the end of the day — or season — the victory against Iowa State will count for something, too.
Anyway, wide receiver Casey Flair had a different spin after the game. “It might take a little bit (to swallow the UNR loss), but that’ll all be long gone once we’re in a bowl game, and that’ll take that away,” he said.
“We have the capability, we have enough talent on this team, we just have to turn this around and keep it going in the right direction.”
Check, check, check ... and check.
Afterward, Sanford said there were still a lot of opportunities for the Rebels to make this a real nice season, that there still was a lot of football to be played. Check and check. Of the seven games remaining, there are probably only 1 1/2 (BYU and TCU) UNLV can’t win, although it wouldn’t surprise me if Air Force reverts to its old triple-option attack when the Rebels return home Oct. 18.
This week UNLV has an excellent chance to put the UNR debacle in the rearview mirror against a middling Colorado State team that Cal left at the rest stop, 42-7, on Saturday.
The Rams don’t run the option.
If the Rebels are 4-2 at the halfway point, Sanford might even receive another phone call from the chancellor’s office.