Lucas Peltier / UNLV
Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2023 | 2 a.m.
The UNLV football team suffered a devastating loss Saturday, coming up short in the final seconds at Fresno State.
Except it wasn’t so devastating.
Not in literal terms, anyway. While giving up a 10-point lead and getting stuffed on the goal line at the end of a 35-28 defeat may have stung in the moment, the truth for this Scarlet and Gray squad is that the damage done in the Mountain West standings was minimal. Sitting at 3-1 in conference play, UNLV is just as alive for a title run as they were before the loss. The path just got a little trickier.
On Monday, coach Barry Odom gathered his team and made that point.
“Isn’t it awesome?” Odom said. “We’re getting into November and we’re in the hunt for the conference championship. We’ve gotten exactly, up to this point, what we’ve earned. And if we want it, it’s there to go take.”
Since the Mountain West abolished divisions last year, the top two teams in the conference meet in the championship game. As of now, Air Force has a comfortable lead in first place at 5-0, while UNLV is tied with Fresno State and Boise State at 3-1. San Jose State is lurking at 3-2, and Wyoming is still dangerous at 2-2.
A win over Fresno State would have been a huge boon to UNLV’s chances — head-to-head is the first tiebreaker — but a strong finish in the final month of the season could render that moot, because wouldn’t you know it, the Scarlet and Gray will get a chance to make their case against the other contenders.
After traveling to New Mexico on Saturday, Odom and his crew will host Wyoming on Nov. 10, then go to Air Force for a penultimate showdown (Nov. 18) before the finale at home against San Jose State (Nov. 25).
It’s not a straightforward win-and-you’re-in scenario, but it’s close, and UNLV is relishing being in the mix for the first time.
“It feels like everybody who is in the hunt plays everybody here in the next four weeks,” Odom said. “If you can prepare the right way and then go execute and perform at your best and highest level, then you’ll have an opportunity.”
Belief still runs deep in the UNLV locker room. Despite dropping the game at Fresno, the Scarlet and Gray looked like the better team — at least to themselves.
Senior receiver Ricky White is one who believes. He grabbed seven catches for 152 yards and two touchdowns and made several clutch plays in the fourth quarter, and he thinks UNLV is still the class of the Mountain West if the team plays up to its capabilities.
“We just want to win out these couple games that we’ve got, to end the season strong,” White said. “As a team we still feel like we’re the best in this conference.”
What will it take to secure a spot in the title game? Odom was clear that another turnoverpalooza like Saturday’s four-giveaway performance at Fresno State cannot happen again.
UNLV is ranked No. 13 nationally in turnover margin, and Odom said the Rebels have to win that category in each game down the stretch.
“I think we’re a good team,” Odom said. “We’re not going to be good enough to turn the ball over four times against a good team and walk away with a win.”
It sounds like a plan that could lead to a very fun November: Take care of the ball, win some games, do some scoreboard-watching. With a little fortune, it might just work out for the Scarlet and Gray despite how things went down in Fresno.
Junior cornerback Cameron Oliver, who had a sack and an interception on Saturday, said UNLV has already turned the page on the loss and is looking ahead to a final month that should unfold like none other in program history.
A Mountain West championship? Why not?
“Everybody knows that everything we want is still in front of us,” Oliver said. “It’s still achievable.”