Lucas Peltier / UNLV Athletics
Saturday, Oct. 28, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Saturday’s win over Colorado State changed everything for this UNLV football team.
By rallying for an unforgettable, 25-23 victory on a go-ahead field goal as time expired, the Scarlet and Gray secured their bowl eligibility for the first time since the 2013 campaign, and in doing so, shifted their own goals considerably.
All of a sudden, sitting at 6-1 and with a spotless 3-0 record in Mountain West play, UNLV is in completely uncharted territory. What’s next now that a postseason berth has been clinched? What’s next for a team that finds itself with so much more to play for?
What’s next for a winning program?
UNLV hasn’t had to ask those questions in a long time. Here’s what they can expect over the next five weeks:
Increasingly bigger games
Winning means escalating stakes, and that’s where UNLV finds itself now. Saturday’s showdown at Fresno State (6-1, 2-1 MWC) carries honest-to-goodness Mountain West title implications, as the winner will have an inside track to one of the top two spots in the standings.
And it doesn’t stop there. Depending on how things shake out around the league, it’s likely UNLV will have back-to-back contests vs. Wyoming (Nov. 10) and at Air Force (Nov. 18) that will be among the most important in recent program history.
How will the players respond? According to senior center Jack Hasz, the players can already feel the atmosphere changing with each win.
“I’d be lying if I said, with how far we’ve come and everything we’ve done, if the games don’t feel any different,” Hasz said. “Games are obviously going to be bigger, and even as we go further along, hopefully bigger than this one this week.”
How UNLV fares in these marquee matchups will determine how far they go this season — starting on Saturday at Fresno State.
As each game becomes more important, so does the game within the game.
For a long time, UNLV could fly under the radar when it came to football minutiae. After all, how much does a bad play call or a misused timeout ultimately matter when the team finishes 2-10?
All those little decisions will come under a microscope now that they could mean the difference between a championship run and an also-ran finish.
For instance, UNLV has been on a roll with redshirt freshman Jayden Maiava at quarterback. But what if he hits a wall? How long is his leash? In a lost season, Barry Odom would have some leeway with that situation; but if the offense is stalled against Fresno State or Air Force, what then?
Odom pointed to his previous head coaching stint at Missouri as something that has prepared him to deal with the intensity of high-stakes football.
“I’ve started the season 1-5 before and ended up getting into a bowl game, and I’ve started 5-1 and ended up 6-6,” Odom said. “So you take from those lessons. Every team is completely different. I think you educate, you talk, you communicate, you’re open, you’re honest, and you control the day to day process of what it looks like.”
Offseason speculation, in-season
One of the byproducts of winning is that it makes the coaching staff more attractive to other programs who want to win. It’s a good problem to have, but it can still become an issue if UNLV lets it.
Odom may be less than one year into a five-year contract, but that’s not going to stop his name from being thrown around in coaching searches this offseason given the astounding turnaround job he is overseeing. The same goes for offensive coordinator Brennan Marion, who could find himself one of the hottest candidates in this hiring cycle. In fact, that speculation will likely begin while UNLV is still playing.
Their job is to not allow those questions to affect UNLV until after the conclusion of the 2023 season.
Speaking broadly about the potential pitfalls that could derail a winning team, Odom said the program has to limit outside interference and focus on the task at hand.
“I would sure be a fool to think that they don’t hear the noise,” Odom said. “Anytime you lose sight of what it takes, preparation-wise, then you’re hurting your chances to play winning football.”
For what it’s worth, athletic director Erick Harper said he touched base with Odom two weeks ago and included university president Keith Whitfield looped in on the dialogue.
“We spent a few hours together during the bye week just talking about, midseason, where are we at?” Harper said. “Are we doing the things that you need us to do to help you win? What can we do better? And our president is involved in my conversations with him. President Whitfield is right there. When I have those conversations with [Whitfield], I say, ‘Look, this is the guy that is doing some great things for us, and we’ve got to keep supporting him.’”
That’s life as a good football program.
This is purely a good thing; the more you win, the more recognition everyone receives.
UNLV is now receiving votes in both the AP Top 25 and the USA Today/Coaches Poll for the first time in decades, and that means more eyeballs. People are discovering the talent on this roster, and players are starting to be singled out for in-season honors, with senior kicker Jose Pizano taking home Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Week and Jai’Den Thomas earning another MWC Freshman of the Week award.
It won’t stop there. If UNLV finishes the season strong, bigger rewards await. Pizano has the numbers to make a case for the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s best kicker. Junior receiver Ricky White could make the All-MWC First Team. Junior receiver Jacob De Jesus could be the All-MWC kick returner. And so on.
Incremental fan support
This is something that usually comes with winning, but with a bit of a delay. Fans want to make sure it’s for real before they start committing to spending their money on tickets, parking, concessions and gear.
Odom asked for a big homecoming crowd against Colorado State, and while he didn’t quite get it — UNLV announced an attendance of 22,585, down from the previous home game against Hawaii (25,328) — he did like the impact they had on the game in the final minutes.
“I don’t know what the attendance was, but they made the difference in the game,” Odom said. “They were loud. We felt it.”
UNLV won’t play at home again until Nov. 10, when they host Wyoming in another potentially massive contest. Will the fans believe by then?