LAS VEGAS — In its less-than-glorious 54-year history of playing football, UNLV hasn’t had a lot of experience when it comes to competing in a big-time college football environment.
The short list includes a 48-6 loss at Nebraska in 1988, a 28-7 loss at Michigan in 2015, a 2-8 record against Wisconsin which dates back to 1985 and a couple of losses at USC.
I’m afraid playing the University of Mexico does not qualify. The Rebels came out on top in that 1971 meeting, 63-6.
Saturday, UNLV gets the opportunity to have another taste of the big stage. Marcus Arroyo’s 4-3 squad will run out of the visitors’ tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium to face the Fighting Irish and all the trappings and aura that come with it.
The Fight Song. Wake up the echoes. Touchdown Jesus. Knute Rockne. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. “Play Like A Champion Today.” The Gipper. Rudy. The only things missing will be Lou Holtz bemoaning how tough an opponent the Rebels are and Lindsey Nelson narrating the weekly highlights show on TV (“We move on to action late in the third quarter.”)
Arroyo, who is half Irish, did not become a Notre Dame fan growing up in Sacramento, Calif. He knows the history though and he has a healthy respect for what Notre Dame represents.
“We’ve talked about it and it’s the kind of experience you’ll remember the rest of your life,” Arroyo said earlier in the week.
At 3-3, the Fighting Irish are not exactly the Notre Dame of Rockne, Frank Leahy and Ara Parseghian. They’re coming off a 16-14 loss to Stanford at home and all this talk of moving on from Brian Kelly following his departure for LSU and moving upward under Marcus Freeman hasn’t resulted in the kind of season Notre Dame fans were hoping and expecting.
Normally, the seeds might be sown for an upset of massive proportions. But UNLV is a shorthanded football team at key positions. Quarterback Doug Brumfield remains in concussion protocol and he’s out for Saturday. Star running back Aidan Robbins, who injured his knee last week against Air Force, is also expected to be out. Maybe defensive end Adam Plant can also play after he missed the 42-7 loss to the Falcons last week.
With a lineup that is less than full strength, it’s hard to fathom UNLV going to South Bend and shocking the world. They’re 24.5-point underdogs for a reason. Besides, there’s a bigger picture to focus on. The Rebels need just two wins in their final five games to become bowl eligible. And while a win at Notre Dame would be the biggest in school history, finishing the season with some positive momentum is bigger. Had Arroyo played Brumfield and he gets hurt again, you’re asking sophomore quarterback Cameron Friel, who has struggled in his two appearances, to lead this team to the postseason. That may not happen, even with a manageable Mountain West schedule that includes games at Hawaii and home to Nevada to conclude the regular season.
With Arroyo saving Brumfield, he has his No. 1 QB ready for the MW stretch run, which begins at San Diego State Nov. 5. UNLV has next week off so that gives all of the injured players sufficient time to get healthy and be ready to go at close to full strength against the Aztecs.
In this case, the risks would’ve outweighed the rewards. I’d rather be 4-4 and have my entire team healthy and ready to make the final push to be able to play in a bowl game for the first time since 2014. Remember, this is UNLV we’re talking about, a team which has gone 0-6 and 2-10 in Arroyo’s first two seasons. In Year Three, he is the process of staging a remarkable turnaround with a struggling program. He can have a winning season. He can take this team bowling. It can help boost recruiting, increase donations from boosters and lift the entire campus community, much of which tends to look the other way when it comes to its football team.
So go to South Bend, enjoy the experience, line up with who you have, give it your best shot and see what happens. Who knows? Maybe UNLV will still shock the world. But don’t lose sight of the fact there is a season to still play after Saturday. It appears Arroyo got the memo.