Adversity hitting Rebels right between the eyes

The talk of UNLV playing in a bowl games this season went from a shout to a whisper on Saturday.

LAS VEGAS — And things were going so well.

UNLV was having a tremendous start to its football season, beating the teams it was supposed to, nearly getting a win on the road at California and at 4-1, was primed to have one of the best years in a long, long time.

Then quarterback Doug Brumfield got hurt at San Jose State and Kyle Williams, the Rebels’ go-to receiver, was out. Adam Plant Jr., the team’s star defensive player, also was sidelined. Suddenly, Marcus Arroyo’s team forgot how to play football, or so it seemed.

The Rebels got boat-raced by the Spartans 40-7. Saturday, it was more of the same as Air Force came into Allegiant Stadium, forced backup QB Cameron Friel into a pair of fumbles, cashed in on a third fumble, built a 28-0 lead early in the second quarter and cruised to a 42-7 win.

Suddenly, that bowl game talk went from a shout to a whisper. Yes, with five games left, the math is still in UNLV’s favor. The Rebels (4-3, 2-2 Mountain West) need just two victories to become bowl eligible and make it back to the postseason for the first time since 2014. But they’ve got some cleaning up to do because right now, things are an unholy mess.

UNLV has to travel to Notre Dame next Saturday and the Fighting Irish figure to be in a combative mood after losing to Stanford at home Saturday, 16-14.

“It’s a disappointed locker room,” Arroyo said in his postgame press conference. “I have to do a better job of coaching. We’ve got to execute better at all levels. Taking care of the football, that’s the primary thing.”

The key is getting their stars back on the field. Brumfield’s status for next Saturday in South Bend is up in the air as he is still dealing with concussion issues. But for Friel, who was the Mountain West’s Freshman of the Year last season, his sophomore season has been more than jinxed. He failed to rally his team against San Jose State and struggled mightily Saturday against an Air Force defense that always comes to play and comes ready to hit you. His lack of ball protection really hurt the Rebels and when you’re trailing 28-0 early, it takes your game plan of running bruising back Aidan Robbins and puts it in the trash can. And when Robbins hurt his knee in the first half, that pretty much ended any realistic hopes of winning against a Falcons team which rushed for 406 yards, racked up 26 first downs and had possession of the ball on offense for more than 43 minutes.

The thing is, many believed UNLV would already be bowl eligible at this point, given its fast start. But perhaps everyone underestimated San Jose State, and Air Force, with its option attack, is always difficult to prepare for. However, when you are on the short end of consecutive lopsided losses, it’s cause for re-examination.

For the second straight week, UNLV surrendered 40 or more points while managing just a single touchdown. That’s a big concern, regardless of who’s in the lineup. And the majority of the announced crowd of 23,847 had already left when the Falcons eclipsed the 40-point barrier late in the third quarter.

Instead, Arroyo and his staff are going to have to really do some coaching and help this team mend its collective wounded psyche before getting on the plane later this coming week to go to Indiana.

Mind you, this isn’t some anomaly during Arroyo’s tenure in Las Vegas. He has been on the short end of a number of blowouts during his time here. In 2020, his first year when he was 0-6, Arroyo’s Rebels got beat 34-6 by San Diego State and 45-14 by Wyoming. In 2021, Iowa State hammered the Rebels 48-3, Nevada won 51-20 and Air Force hung 48 on UNLV in winning 48-14.

Yet all can be forgiven if Arroyo’s team can figure out a way to get back to being the football team everyone was excited about at the end of September and figure out a way to win two more games. It’s not impossible and not even improbable. But it is going to take some serious regrouping and get the key players back on the field. For as good as this team has been at times, they are lacking quality depth and that’s something you can’t cover up.

So whoever steps on the field for UNLV needs to be prepared to play, execute the game plan and have the mentality that existed the first five weeks of the season. Perhaps that will be good enough to be playing football come December, though it would certainly help the Rebels’ cause if they can get their best players healthy and ready to produce. Otherwise, the word “disappointing” will remain in the head coach’s and program’s lexicon.

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