LAS VEGAS – Mike Leach has most certainly told his team that it doesn’t matter anymore, but Washington State’s opponent here today provided the opportunity for one of WSU’s highest points of the otherwise forgettable 2011 season.
The date was Sept. 10 when UNLV came to Pullman as a 14-point underdog.
It left a 59-7 loser, the victim of a beating by WSU that, coupled with the previous week’s 64-21 win over Idaho State, gave the Cougars their most points in the first two games of a season since 1907.
So dominant was WSU that day in every phase of the game that Rebels coach Bobby Hauck remarked afterward: “Frankly, we’re kind of where they were two years ago,” referring to the Cougars’ 1-11 season in 2009.
“It was a win, and it was by a lot,” said WSU linebacker Darryl Monroe, who missed last year’s game after tearing his Achilles in the season opener. “I don’t think we were predicted to win by that much so it was kind of an eye-opening experience, like, ‘Look at what we’re capable of.’”
Not much has changed for the Rebels since, though they’ve at least been competitive in their two losses to begin 2012. The first was a triple-overtime setback at home against Minnesota. The second was harder to swallow, a 17-14 loss to Northern Arizona of the Big Sky, a game UNLV led 14-0 in the first quarter.
WSU coach Mike Leach doesn’t focus on his opponent’s struggles. He’ll likely be starting a new quarterback this week, as Connor Halliday has taken all of the No. 1 reps in practice with Jeff Tuel sidelined by an apparent right knee injury.
“This is a different team than they were last year,” Leach said of the Rebels. “UNLV’s a different team and is a much-improved team. They’re disappointed with their results, but they’ve got some weapons out there that are getting ready to uncork and we do too.”
One weapon the Rebels have already uncorked – and uncorked, and uncorked – is junior running back Tim Cornett. He’s been the lone bright spot for UNLV so far, ranking 10th in the nation in yards per game with an average of 134 on 50 total carries through two games.
He was also the lone bright spot in last year’s game against WSU, returning a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown to account for the Rebels’ only points.
WSU defensive coordinator Mike Breske described UNLV’s offensive style as “very conservative. Big, physical offensive line, talented running back, quarterback that manages the game very well. They don’t turn the ball over. They haven’t scored a lot of points. (We) don’t want that trend to start. Got to be very, very physical against this offensive line, make sure our run fits are great and watch out for the play-action pass.”
UNLV starts a redshirt freshman, Nick Sherry, at quarterback. He’s completed half of his pass attempts this season (32 of 64) for 355 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. The Rebels have rushed the ball 84 times this season.
“They’ve got some speed in certain spots, kind of big, thick people,” Leach said. “I think they’ve come together. They’ve got some guys that played last year. They’re playing together a lot better than they have in the past.”
Which is also what the Cougars need to do instead of playing with “eight or nine” players on certain plays, as Leach likes to say.
They certainly did last season against this team.
“We all rose together in all three phases – special teams, offense and defense,” running back Carl Winston said. “We were all on the same page and everything was clicking.”