UNLV has won a mere two games in each of the past three seasons, none against teams that ended with winning records.
Those six conquered opponents ended with a combined record of 23-52.
While the Rebs haven’t exactly been reaching the top branches of the college football tree, all of those six victories did come in Las Vegas, so they have a fighting chance — and they’re certainly not a huge betting underdog — as they play host to Arizona tonight at 7:30 p.m. (CBS Sports Network).
UNLV’s five home losses last season were decided by a total of 24 points, although it does need to be pointed out that one of those defeats came to Northern Arizona.
Arizona is an 11- to 12-point favorite tonight.
Here are five things to watch tonight from Sam Boyd Stadium:
1. Carey’s carries
Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey “runs angry” as coach Rich Rodriguez likes to say, and we’ll see if he will be “running angrier” tonight.
Carey, the nation’s leading rusher from last season, must be burning to get on the field after being suspended for last weeks’ opener. Rodriguez said senior Daniel Jenkins — whose season-debut included a 91-yard touchdown run — will start, with Carey coming in during the first half.
Carey averaged 23.3 rushes per game last season and had almost another three touches on receptions.
“I don’t know if we have anybody who can tackle him,” said UNLV coach Bobby Hauck.
Look for Carey and Jenkins to spend time on the field together, either flanking quarterback B.J. Denker or with one in the backfield and the other in the slot.
“I hope he missed it,” Rodriguez said of Carey not playing last week.
“I hope he’s hungry to come back. What made Ka’Deem great last year was he was hungry to play every time.”
2. Arizona’s effort
One of the talking points of the week was Rodriguez being so unhappy with his team on Tuesday that he canceled the usual post-practice media availability.
Missing a day of interviews wasn’t the big deal; Rodriguez trying to squeeze the most of the players was.
By his admission, he’s not a big “team meeting” kind of coach — as he often says, there isn’t a lot of hand-holding and signing of “Kumbaya” — but he talked to the entire team for about 30 minutes Wednesday.
“Got some things straightened out,” Rodriguez said.
“Attitude has been good. And the effort is good for the most part. But we’re really demanding on that. Some coaches believe you shouldn’t have to coach effort or playing hard all the time. I’m a little different. Any time we go live situations in practice and in the game, I want their best.
“I told them, two major rules — don’t embarrass the program and do your best. Sometimes they don’t even realize when they’re not doing their best. Sometimes we have to have reminders. I think they’ll get it.”
Rodriguez said the two worst four-letter words you can a football player are “lazy” and “soft.” And the worst time to be saying them would be after a loss.
3. Size matters
Rodriguez said he thought the offensive line wasn’t explosive last week, content to just “lean” on the NAU defenders rather than blowing them off the line of scrimmage. The Rebels present a bigger challenge, with a big and tall defensive line and 250-pound middle linebacker Tani Maka.
“They’re a big, physical team,” Rodriguez said of UNLV.
“It concerns me that we’re so small. We’re smaller than everyone we play, maybe other than NAU. This team, we don’t match up with them size-wise, so that’s a little concern. We’d better play with great technique.”
UNLV isn’t tiny on offense, either.
Sophomore quarterback Nick Sherry is 6-5, 235. Leading receiver, Devante Davis (61 catches for 854 yards last season) is 6-3, 210. Senior running back Tim Cornett, on pace to become the school’s career leading rusher, is 6-0, 210.
“He’s a big, physical back,” Rodriguez said.
“We don’t have anybody in our program like that. Not tackling a guy like that (in practice) is going to be a big concern for us in the beginning of the game.”
4. Special teams
UNLV was doing just fine at Minnesota last week until allowing a 98-yard return on the opening kickoff of the second half, and then having a blocked punt returned 51 yards for a score.
(The Gophers also scored on an 89-yard punt return to win in a 51-23 rout despite being out-gained 419-320.)
Arizona didn’t make the grade either on special teams, with two muffed punt catches, two punts of less than 20 yards, and a missed 28-yard field goal.
Rodriguez subbed in Johnny Jackson at punt returner late in the NAU game, but true freshman Nate Phillips seems likely to get another chance. Rodriguez said Phillips hadn’t dropped a punt catch in practice.
The special teams miscues didn’t hurt the Cats last week. They might not be so lucky tonight if they make similar mistakes.
5. Arizona’s QB play
Denker was OK in the opener. Much like his lone start last season against Colorado, he didn’t have to do a lot, but he managed the game well, making good reads and not turning the ball over. He’s certainly not slow when he keeps the ball.
Redshirt freshman Javelle Allen is the popular backup of the moment after his 61-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter against NAU. He has pulled ahead of Jesse Scroggins as No. 2 on the depth chart.
True freshman Anu Solomon is on the trip (basically because he’s from Las Vegas), but is otherwise headed for a redshirt season.
We’ll see what RichRod does if the game is close and/or the offense struggles. Does he stick with Denker the whole way?