LAS VEGAS — Nearly nine months of preparation, finding a coaching staff, revamping the roster, forging ties with the community and looking to change a decades-long culture of losing all came together in one tidy package Saturday afternoon for Barry Odom.
The veteran football coach who had been in the big time, first as head coach at Missouri then later as defensive coordinator and associate head coach at Arkansas, made his UNLV debut against Bryant University at Allegiant Stadium. There’s no doubt the curiosity factor was high among the announced crowd of 20,347 that showed up to see if Odom could get the Rebels moving in the right direction.
With the running game on point starting with Vincent Davis’ 69-yard run for a touchdown on UNLV’s first play from scrimmage, the defense making big stops and numerous contributions from the newcomers, the Rebels made short work of the Bulldogs, sprinting out to a 24-0 first-half lead and cruising to a 44-14 victory.
Not even a leak in the Allegiant roof, which caused a 10-minute delay late in the second quarter could slow down the hosts as quarterback Doug Brumfield scrambled on the final play of the half and ran 19 yards for a touchdown. The rain that has played havoc throughout the valley the past couple of days didn’t spare the $2 billion stadium, though the impact was minimal and the weather didn’t affect the game’s continuation.
“I was told it doesn’t rain in Las Vegas,” Odom said jokingly. “But a lot of work by a lot of people went into this opportunity (Saturday). It means a lot to get off on the right foot and we’re glad to be 1-0.”
Bryant, which is in Smithfield, R.I., is known for being the former training camp home of the New England Patriots and where Max Good, the former UNLV assistant and interim head basketball coach, took the Bulldogs’ men’s team to the 2005 NCAA Division II title game, falling to Virginia Union. The town also gained some exposure as its Little League All-Star team faced and defeated Henderson at the Little League World Series last month.
But Saturday was about the Rebels. They carried over their good practice habits to gameday and Odom and his coaches had them ready to play. The “Go Go Offense” of Brennan Marion was hoping to run at least 73 plays and they settled for 64. The running backs were strong with Jai’Den Thomas scoring twice on runs of 18 and 8 yards to complement Davis’ big TD run on the opening play. The defense pitched a shutout until late in the third quarter. And the Rebels answered that with Jacob DeJesus’ electrifying 96-yard kickoff return to the Bryant 2 where Donavyn Lester punched it in as James Shibest’s special teams acquitted themselves nicely.
“We did some good things but we were inconsistent,” Odom said. “The good teams take what they did well and build on it. The things they didn’t do as well run to it and not run from it.
“We will build this into an elite program for the city of Las Vegas.”
That said, let’s remember that UNLV faced an FCS team. Bryant figures to be on more equal footing next Saturday when it hosts Long Island University while UNLV will go to the Big House in Ann Arbor to face Michigan, where coach Jim Harbaugh will sit out the contest as part of a school-imposed three-game suspension for NCAA violations. So a week from now, things could be the polar opposite for both programs from what they were on Saturday.
But UNLV, which has a history of losing these FCS games (A 43-40 loss to Howard in 2017, a 35-33 2 OT loss to Eastern Washington in 2021), wasn’t going to have that happen vs. Bryant. Even with Brumfield not as sharp as he’d have liked to have been (11 of 18, 86 yards and an interception, plus a rushing TD), UNLV was never in danger of falling short and ruining Odom’s debut.
“It was great to get out there and run the offense in real time,”said Brumfield. “But we left a lot out there and I take full ownership. It’s my job to see that the offense is run at its highest level. But we did do some good things.”
If you’re a long-suffering UNLV fan, you had to be encouraged by what you saw. The poor tackling, the dumb penalties, the failure to finish drives — all hallmarks of the program’s long-standing ineptitude, weren’t as evident Saturday.
No, the Rebels weren’t perfect. Far from it. There were missed tackles, the occasional blown assignment on defense that led to big chunk plays, a lack of execution at times by the offense. But a win is a win and for a program that has aspirations of returning to a bowl game for the first time since 2014, this is a good start toward that goal.