LAS VEGAS — To take a line from Coach Prime — “Do you believe?”
Are you prepared to accept that UNLV’s football program is ready to leave the ranks of the abysmal and become a successful team, one that can get to a bowl game and perhaps win in late December, something it last did more than two decades ago?
While Deion Sanders and Colorado are getting all sorts of national attention, Barry Odom, in his quiet, confident and unassuming way, is turning water into wine on Maryland Parkway.
With each week, Odom, who replaced Marcus Arroyo as the Rebels’ head coach in early December, is building things the right way. He’s assembled a really good coaching staff and he’s declared open competition everywhere on the field. Which is why a redshirt freshman like Jayden Maiava can trot onto the field and quarterback UNLV to a program-defining 40-37 win over Vanderbilt last Saturday at Allegiant Stadium. Odom lets his coaches coach and his players play. And so far, it’s working.
But do you believe?
For UNLV’s small, long-suffering fan base, it may take a little more convincing. A 2-1 start does help. A win this Saturday over a struggling UTEP team at the Sun Bowl would help more. And if the Rebels can make some hay in the Mountain West and post a winning record which would guarantee a trip to a bowl game for the first time since 2014, well maybe then that question of believing will be rendered moot.
Remember, we’ve been there before. As recently as last year, UNLV was 4-1 and fans were thinking about which bowl Arroyo’s team was going to be invited to. Then quarterback Doug Brumfield got hurt, the team went into a deep nosedive and wound up losing six of its last seven.
No winning season. No bowl game. Yet another coaching change.
But here’s where things are different. Yes, Brumfield, the junior starting QB, suffered his annual injury, this time to his ribcage in the first quarter against Vanderbilt. Yes, the defense got lax at time and allowed the Commodores to come back after blowing a 17-0 lead to erase a 30-17 deficit. Yes, there were too many penalties. It took a missed 35-yard field goal with 44 seconds left to give the Rebels a shot to pull this one out of the fire, which they eventually did thanks to Maiava’s arm, Ricky White’s hands, and, eventually, Jose Pizano’s foot as the 5-foot-9, 220-pound senior kicker booted the game-winner home from 36 yards out with five seconds to play for a 40-37 win.
But the biggest change from years past? The fact UNLV managed to stay in the fight despite being down 17-0 early on. The Rebels adjusted, forced turnovers, made plays on both sides of the ball, and even when Vandy showed some pluck of its own in coming back to tie it, UNLV stayed confident, executed when it needed to and was rewarded with the W, which no doubt pleased the announced crowd of 22,582.
The challenge this week and in the weeks ahead is to avoid slippage, not allowing any backwards steps, build on the success from Saturday and keep finding ways to win. It doesn’t need to be perfect. It’s more about resiliency and trust in the coaching, the game plan and each other.
Given what I’ve seen of Odom and his staff so far, I’ll be shocked if the Rebels find themselves going into reverse this week. Even if Brumfield is good to go and can finally get himself going after struggling the first two-plus weeks, I expect UNLV to find a way to get past the Miners, who are offensively challenged (No. 125 in the FBS in offense, 1-3 overall and already 0-1 in Conference USA). That would make the Rebels 3-1 for the preseason heading into Mountain West play Sept. 30 vs. Hawaii at home.
“We need to have a great week; We know how important this week is,” Odom said Monday at his weekly press conference at the Fertitta Football Complex on the UNLV campus. “We’ve got to be on every single day.
“I believe our team follows its staff. I never take a day off.”
I also don’t think Odom will allow a QB controversy to infiltrate his program. He committed to Brumfield in the spring and I don’t see a permanent change to Maiava unless Brumfield is physically unable to play.
“If he’s healthy, he’s our starting quarterback,” Odom said of Brumfield, who participated in a limited basis at Monday’s practice and has a soft tissue injury between his ribs and hip. “A lot will depend on how he heals and how healthy he is.”
That said, Brumfield needs to run Brennan Marion’s Go Go Offense better than he has so far. He claims he has full grasp of it and is comfortable playing in it. But actions speak louder than words and so far, Brumfield has struggled.
Granted, trying to move the ball vs. Michigan is a huge task for any quarterback. But he didn’t play great in the win over FBS opponent Bryant to open the season and was struggling against Vanderbilt as his line was not giving him much time to make plays. The reason he got hurt was the protection broke down and he took a big shot while throwing an interception.
But it’s nice to know that Odom has a Plan B in Maiava, who has been tremendous so far each time he has taken a snap from center, save for the interception he threw with a minute to go that gave Vanderbilt a chance to win it only to have its kicker miss and gave UNLV a reprieve. He was named the conference’s Freshman of the Week Monday while Pizano was tabbed as the MW Special Teams POW.
So while Colorado fans believe in what Deion is doing and he gets appearances on 60 Minutes, Odom is quietly getting UNLV out of the shadows and into the light. He’s fine with being on local television and getting his players to believe. Perhaps a few more wins and they’ll fill Allegiant Stadium’s lower bowl with believers and generate enough faith for school officials to open up the middle and upper decks.