Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023 | 2 a.m.
In the last two weeks, the UNLV football team scored a season-high 56 points in its victory over New Mexico, then tied a season low by holding Wyoming to 14 points in another victory. The defense shut out Wyoming in the second half of that 34-14 win — a triumph that moved the Scarlet and Gray into a first-place tie in the Mountain West standings.
It’s clear evidence that UNLV is playing its best football at the right time, and coach Barry Odom believes there is still room to get better.
“Defensively, offensively and kicking, we have not played our best game,” Odom said. “I’m hopeful that if we have a really good week of preparation, that we’ll get a little bit closer to that pursuit.”
The difference from last year, when UNLV lost six straight games to fall out of bowl contention, is stark. How did this program go from an epic collapse in the second half of the 2022 season to now surging down the stretch as they drive for a conference championship?
Some of it can be attributed to good fortune. The roster has been remarkably healthy, and Odom reported no injuries coming out of the Wyoming game. On the contrary, starting cornerback Jerrae Williams is nearing a return from injury, which should be a boon to the defense when he gets back on the field.
The most notable injury suffered this season was Doug Brumfield getting knocked out of the Vanderbilt game in Week 3. Even then, Brumfield’s misfortune opened the door for redshirt freshman Jayden Maiava to take over at quarterback, so that probably counts as a net positive. Talk about injury luck.
The rest of the equation is good, old-fashioned preparation.
Football is physically demanding and mentally draining, but Odom and his staff have crafted a plan to keep UNLV on the ascent throughout the long season. The foundation is a consistent practice routine that has remained largely unchanged throughout the campaign.
Junior receiver Jacob De Jesus said it’s hard to tell the difference between the structure of an early-season practice and what the team is doing now in preparation for Saturday’s first-place showdown at Air Force.
“We’ve been on the same mission since Week 1,” De Jesus said. “Even when it was Bryant week, we had the same goal, the same winning mindset we continue to have here. I don’t think it’s much different. We have the same routine almost exactly from Week 1.”
What has changed over the months is the intensity. Odom consistently turns up the temperature, demanding faster, more efficient, better practice sessions as the season goes on. He expects his players go the extra mile, whether it’s hustling through each drill at full speed or putting in an extra 30 minutes of film study.
He said that so far, the players have responded to that challenge by putting in the work.
“They don’t relax,” Odom said. “All of those things go into what it looks like on playing your best ball, especially late in the year. Are you mentally strong enough to do it as a team? And if you are, then you’re going to pass guys that aren’t.
“As soon as you get tired of doing it, you get beat.”
Odom also closely monitors for slippage across the board. More than three months into a monotonous season, the basics can be easy to take for granted. Odom and his staff are vigilant against the rounding of corners, which is something he learned from his mentor, former Missouri coach Gary Pinkel.
Odom was on staff under Pinkel from 2003 to 2011 and credits him for instilling the need to stay on guard against late-season slides.
“He had his Ph.D. in the nature of what it looked like, consistency, day in and day out,” Odom said. “There’s red flags everywhere if you choose to look away from it. Were guys dressed the way they’re supposed to be? Were they here on time? Did anybody miss breakfast? How were the meetings? What did stretch and walkthrough look like? Was the communication right? The attention to detail that goes into every single rep, you can choose to see those things, or you can look away and say, ‘It’s OK.’ And it never is.”
And then there are the players themselves. With UNLV installing new schemes on both sides of the ball, it’s only natural that the level of play rises as the team becomes more familiar with the X’s and O’s. Especially with a first-year starter at quarterback.
Maiava took over after Brumfield’s injury and has been learning on the job, with excellent results. The 6-foot-4 Liberty High School product turned in another efficient outing against Wyoming, completing 17-of-24 passes for 232 yards and a touchdown, with no turnovers. For the season, Maiava has completed 65.5% for 2,058 yards, with 11 touchdowns and four interceptions. He also has three rushing touchdowns.
Defensively, UNLV will have its work cut out on Saturday. Air Force’s option rushing attack has overwhelmed the Scarlet and Gray of late, including last year’s 42-7 thrashing that was part of the late-season slump.
That was last year, however, and Odom has his team on a different track. The arrow is pointing upward, and if he is right, Air Force is going to get UNLV’s best shot.