Friday, Sept. 22, 2023 | 2 a.m.
The UNLV football team has an opportunity to do something special. Now they just have to seize it.
By virtue of last week’s dramatic comeback victory over Vanderbilt, the Scarlet and Gray are currently 2-1 and on an early track to qualify for a postseason berth for the first time since 2013. If they’re able to grab another win on Saturday at UTEP, Barry Odom’s squad would officially be halfway to a bowl game.
But maybe more important than adding a tally to the win column, a road triumph at UTEP would go a long way toward showing fans — and the players themselves — that this team is for real.
That belief is something UNLV has to earn. The 2022 team enjoyed an even hotter start, opening the year 4-1 before cratering and finishing 5-7 — one win shy of bowl eligibility. In order to prove the 2023 version has staying power, the Scarlet and Gray will have to do better than a single wild win (albeit over an SEC opponent).
The players are aware they’ve got a chance to build some serious momentum, and they don’t intend to squander it.
Senior linebacker Fred Thompkins, who posted 10 tackles and a sack against Vanderbilt, said it’s critical for UNLV to capitalize on their success.
“It can do a lot,” Thompkins said of the last-second victory. “Momentum is a real thing. That can get us rolling going forward. Everybody buying in, practicing harder, working harder, everybody just playing together. So that can be really good for us.”
There’s much at stake for the Scarlet and Gray this week. UNLV actually opened as a road favorite, as UTEP (1-3) is coming off consecutive losses to Northwestern and Arizona (combined score: 69-17). The Miners also flubbed their season opener, falling to Jacksonville State. From UNLV’s perspective, the game is decidedly there for the taking, even with uncertainty at the quarterback position.
Odom has been around long enough to know that momentum is fickle, however, and he wasted no time delivering that message to his charges.
In his Monday press conference, Odom warned against getting too high after the Vanderbilt win.
“As soon as you take a breath and have any moment where you relax, there’s somebody waiting around the corner to knock you out. We understand our margin of error as a team is absolutely zero. For us to play winning football, we need to prepare.
“There are so many things we can accomplish in this season,” he continued, “but we’ve got to be ‘on’ every single day. I never believe you stay the same. You absolutely do not. You’re working to improve, or you take steps backward.”
Senior linebacker Elijah Shelton knows how true that is. He remembers UNLV’s fast start in 2022 and how quickly things unraveled, and he’s determined not to let that happen again.
Shelton, who made one of the biggest plays in the Vanderbilt comeback, forcing a fumble that led to a touchdown return by Jerrae Williams, said it’s all about grinding away at the fine details.
By getting the little things right in practice, Shelton believes UNLV can avoid slippage on gamedays — and the second-half fade that doomed the 2022 campaign.
“There’s always an emphasis to start strong,” Shelton said. “It’s whether or not you can continue hammering those small details like we did in the spring and summer, and that’s what the coaches have been preaching.”
Defensively, UNLV should have an edge over a UTEP attack that has rated as one of the weakest in the nation this season. The Miners have scored just 10.3 points per game, which ranks 123rd out of 132 teams, and they’re averaging a meager 3.0 yards per rush.
If UNLV plays up to expectations on Saturday, they could surge into Mountain West play with a 3-1 record and a ton of momentum behind them.
First, they’ve got to focus on UTEP.
“We’re definitely not looking past them,” Shelton said. “We need another good performance to propel us into conference.”