Santoro: Time to deal with it — UNLV is good at football

Led by quarterback Jayden Maiava, UNLV has won eight games and is tied for first place in the Mountain West standings.

Led by quarterback Jayden Maiava, UNLV has won eight games and is tied for first place in the Mountain West standings.
Photo by Steve Ranson.

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Sports Fodder:

Welcome to your nightmare, Nevada Wolf Pack football fans. The UNLV Rebels are now good at football.

It’s actually happened. It’s not just a Mike Sanford, Jeff Horton, Tony Sanchez, Bobby Hauck and Marcus Arroyo introductory press conference hollow promise.

It’s real. It’s not a fluke or a fantasy concocted by some glitzy Las Vegas casino public relations department. It’s a nightmare Pack fans simply cannot wake up from.

UNLV is not only good at football for the first time in what seems like forever, it might actually be the best team in the Mountain West.

But here’s the worst news about this sudden Rebel uprising. This might just be the start of UNLV’s dominance.

Make it stop.

The Rebels are now 8-2 overall and tied with Air Force for the best record in the Mountain West at 5-1 in league play. Victories over Air Force this Saturday on the road and San Jose State at home on Nov. 25 to close out the regular season will make UNLV the conference champion and the host of the Mountain West championship game on Dec. 2.

Imagine that. Allegiant Stadium could host the Mountain West title game and the Super Bowl (Feb. 11) just 71 days apart.

Hey, Northern Nevada will have a basketball arena in the parking lot of an already crowded casino in a few years. That’s something, right?

A chill just went through the souls of every Wolf Pack football fan. UNLV fans were insufferable when their football team could barely walk, chew gum and keep itself from stumbling into traffic on Las Vegas Boulevard at the same time.

Rebel fans armed with a red Fremont Cannon and a Mountain West championship trophy? Make it stop, indeed.


This Rebel excellence does not entirely come as a surprise. That is the most frightening part of all this.

The Rebels showed they were finally serious about football after the 2022 season when they fired head coach Marcus Arroyo after just three seasons and 30 games.

The Rebels, after all, usually allow their inept football coaches to stick around for at least five years. See Jeff Horton, Mike Sanford, Bobby Hauck and Tony Sanchez.

Arroyo won five games last year and was fired. There was a time UNLV would have built a statue of its head coach after a five-win season and put it out in front of Caesar’s Palace.

Arroyo, though, got booted out of town. He even beat Nevada in the last game of the year, won the Fremont Cannon and still lost his job.

UNLV, though, then went out after last year and hired former Missouri head coach Barry Odom. Odom, sort of a poor man’s version of Dan Campbell of the Detroit Lions, immediately injected a philosophy of hard work, toughness, grit and a hatred for losing into the program.

The 46-year-old former Missouri linebacker immediately changed the culture, attitude and expectations around the program.

“I don’t want the history of what this program has been, good and bad, to define this team,” Odom said recently. “It’s a new team. It’s a blank sheet. Let’s change the narrative.”


UNLV’s only two losses this year have been at Michigan (think the Wolverines had the Rebel signs?) and Fresno State (wide receiver Senika McKie dropped what should have been a sure touchdown pass with 10 seconds left that would have tied the game).

The Rebels lead the nation with 31 rushing touchdowns and are ranked in the Top 20 in rushing yards per game (197.9), average rush (4.7) and points per game (36.4).

They are in the top three in the Mountain West in scoring, sacks, sacks allowed, point allowed per game, total offense and touchdowns.

Wide receiver Ricky White, a transfer (before the 2022 season) from Michigan State, leads the Mountain West in catches (63) and receiving yards (1,028). Freshman quarterback Jayden Maiava took over in September for injured starter Doug Brumfield and has passed for 2,058 yards and 11 touchdowns and run for 199 yards and three scores.

Vincent Davis, Jai’Den Thomas, Donavyn Lester and Courtney Reese all have 220 or more rushing yards. It’s almost as if the Pack’s Pistol offense moved down south.

This is not a fluke. The Las Vegas casino owners didn’t all pool the money in their couch cushions this year to pay off the Mountain West officials.

The Rebels, 5-0 at Allegiant Stadium, have earned this.

It’s real, Pack fans.


How close are the Rebels to winning a league title this year?

Well, they get to play a banged-up Air Force team on Saturday that will be coming off stunning losses to Army (23-3) and Hawaii (27-13).

But the Falcons are the best-coached team in the conference and will be extremely difficult to beat at home. UNLV has not beaten Air Force since 2013, losing five games in a row.

But if the Rebels beat Air Force and San Jose State (the Spartans just stunned Fresno State) and get to play the title game at Allegiant Stadium, well, the Fremont Cannon just might get some company in the UNLV trophy room.

But, as all Wolf Pack fans know, the Rebels will be Rebels. And it will be just like the Rebels to remember that they are Rebels the next two weeks.

A UNLV loss to Air Force coupled with a Fresno State (8-2, 4-2) victory over New Mexico this weekend will severely dent the Rebels’ chances of getting to the league title game, let alone hosting it.

See, Wolf Pack fans? You do have some things to cheer for and hope for the last two weeks of the season, after all.


UNLV, though, will consider this season a rousing success even if it loses to Air Force and San Jose State over the next two weekends.

UNLV has already clinched its first bowl game since the 2013 season, a 36-14 loss to North Texas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl.

UNLV, despite all their fun this year, simply can’t be mad about a season that ends with a bowl game. That’s because the Rebels might have the saddest bowl game resume in the history of NCAA football.

First of all, UNLV has played the sport since 1968 and has only been to five bowl games. And they are arguably the saddest bowl games in the history of bowl games: the 1974 Grantland Rice Bowl against Delaware, the 1984 California Bowl against Toledo, the 1994 and 2000 Las Vegas Bowls against Central Michigan and Arkansas and the 2013 Heart of Dallas Bowl against North Texas.

Who says bowl games are rewards for a job well done? Not the Rebels.

This year, though, could be very different for UNLV.

The Mountain West is connected to the New Mexico Bowl, Los Angeles Bowl, Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, Hawaii Bowl and Arizona Bowl.

The Mountain West champ goes to the L.A. Bowl at SoFi Stadium on Dec. 16 against a Pac-12 team and that, barring a New Year’s day bowl invite, is the Rebels’ bowl.

This year the L.A. Bowl will be sponsored by Rob Gronkowski. The Gronk Bowl? Come on. Who wouldn’t want to play in the Gronk Bowl?

The other possibilities (New Mexico Bowl, Arizona Bowl, Hawaii Bowl, Potato Bowl) are just the modern-day version of the old California Bowl.


UNLV’s ascension up the Mountain West standings has coincided with the demise of Boise State (5-5, 4-2), San Diego State (3-7, 1-5) and Nevada (2-8, 2-4).

This has not been the best of Mountain West football seasons despite UNLV’s success. The Little Conference That Couldn’t simply cannot afford Boise State to be mediocre and San Diego State to be awful. Nevada also has no excuse for being one of the worst FBS teams in the country.

Hawaii beating Air Force and San Jose State beating Fresno State might be good for UNLV right now, but it certainly isn’t all that great for the Mountain West. A mid-major conference, after all, needs its best teams to be almost flawless in order to attract some national interest.

Right now, the Mountain West is a conference that two teams nobody seems to want (Oregon State, Washington State) don’t even want to join. The Mountain West, as things stand, will be the only FBS football conference anywhere near Oregon State and Washington State and those two schools are still saying thanks, but no thanks.

It would be fitting for UNLV to finally win a Mountain West title the very same year the conference is clearly on life support.


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