LAS VEGAS — On the sideline at Allegiant Stadium sits a 600-pound slot machine constructed for the UNLV football team. It’s there to be part of the celebration whenever the Rebels accomplish something positive.
Let’s just say it hasn’t gotten much use in its brief existence. But that is changing. The woeful Rebels are showing signs of changing their losing culture and the slot machine got used so much in the team’s 58-27 win over North Texas last Saturday I thought they were going to have to call an attendant.
UNLV sits at 2-1 going into conference play Saturday at Utah State. The Mountain West is to football what Judge Smails is to golf, which is not very good. In fact, it’s so bad that the Rebels might be able to contend for the West Division title. A bowl game, which UNLV last participated in back in 2014, may be well within reach. The school hasn’t had a winning record since 2013 when it went 7-6 under Bobby Hauck.
They’re a third of the way to a bowl appearance. A 4-4 conference record or even a sub-.500 league mark that would include — dare we say it? — a win at Notre Dame on Oct. 22, would also do the trick.
But that’s getting ahead of things. Still, for the team’s fan base, there’s hope for the first time in quite a while.
There’s a talented, developing quarterback in sophomore Doug Brumfield who has a great feel for the game and is a dual threat with his arm and his legs. There’s Louisville transfer running back Aidan Robbins who is dubbed the “A-Train” and was running on the express track in racking up 227 yards and scoring three times against the Mean Green.
The much-maligned defense, led by former TCU defensive end Adam Plant, came up with stops three times on fourth down and a late pick-6 by Cameron Oliver. The unit kept the penalties to a minimum and while it could probably use another playmaker or two, they are contributing to the Rebels’ early success.
“Anything we can do during the early part of the season that’s positive is going to help us,” UNLV head coach Marcus Arroyo said after the win. “We’re setting the bar and not thinking about the past.”
Ah, Arroyo. The one-time San Jose State quarterback and former Oregon offensive coordinator got off to a rocky start and a lot of people were wondering what the hell was former athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois thinking when she hired him back in 2019. But after struggling through the pandemic with a winless first season (0-6) in 2020 and a 2-10 record in 2021, he’s finally starting to sow the seeds of success.
You don’t change a couple decades of losing overnight. Culture change takes time. But when you recruit well, make good use of the transfer portal and NIL rules, stay patient, compete every day on the field and in the weight room and get good assistants who believe in your vision, you have a chance.
The program has the facilities to be successful. Las Vegas is no longer a place where parents are hesitant to send their sons to attend school. UNLV has enhanced its academic reputation and maybe an upgrade in conference affiliation is in the cards. If ever there was a time to turn things around, this is it.
“We’ve all bought into the process,” Robbins said. “We’re changing the culture here. We’re getting better ever day, working hard, coming to practice with our lunch pail.”
There are still several steps remaining before UNLV can say it’s a program which has arrived. But beating North Texas was a step in the right direction. It’s a game that in previous years the Rebels would have found a way to lose. It also gives Arroyo and his players confidence as they head to Logan, Utah, traditionally a tough place to play, this weekend.
“It’s playing aggressive, playing violent, playing together,” Arroyo said. “That’s what we’re excited about.”
A few more performances like that and perhaps the fans will get excited and they’ll get more than the announced 19,263 from Saturday to show up at Allegiant Stadium. If the slot machine on the sideline tilts out, it’ll be a sure sign that things are headed in the right direction.