Editor's note: This is the fifth of a series that takes a look
at Hawaii's Western Athletic Conference opponents.

Rebels with a Cause

UNLV knows where it wants to go,
but getting there will be difficult

By Paul Arnett

THE University of Nevada-Las Vegas football team for years was a poor relation when compared to its basketball counterparts.

During the heyday of Jerry Tarkanian and his richly successful run of hoops teams, the football team could be counted on to lose $2 million annually.

At one point in the late 1980s, former athletic director Brad Rothermel came close to shutting down the whole thing, only to have a change of heart.

Current head coach Jeff Horton is glad he did. That's because the football team finally became self-sufficient this past season and could be on the verge of realizing its potential.

"If we had remained in the Big West Conference in football, I feel the program would have been shut down," Horton said. "It's hard for our fans to relate to some of those teams in that conference.

"But now that we've joined the Western Athletic Conference, we believe we'll be able to recruit better and keep some of our better local high school athletes from going elsewhere."

If that's the case, then the Rebels should emerge from the cellar of their new digs in only a few years, however, this season is another matter entirely.

The Rebels open on the road at Tennessee, then return home for two games with Air Force and Wisconsin. That's a far cry from the 1995 schedule that included games with Northern Illinois and Eastern Michigan.

Running back Tony Burton had more than 1,100 yards combined rushing and receiving last season.

Last year, the Rebels finished a dismal 2-9-1 after winning the Big West title and Las Vegas Bowl the season before. Horton went from the top to the bottom so quickly, he was stunned by the fall.

"When we were winning, all the neighbors would wave when I drove home down the street," Horton said. "My dog and my wife would be waiting to greet me at the front door.

"But when we started losing, the only person waiting for me was my dog. And sometimes, even he wasn't around. Hopefully, we can get back on track."

For that to happen, the Rebels must improve defensively and limit the turnovers offensively. Last year, the Rebels tossed 21 interceptions and lost 18 fumbles for a minus-22 turnover margin.

UNLV also gave up the most points in the nation last year with an average of 47.3 a game. The Rebels yielded a staggering 535 yards a game as well, something they can ill-afford to do in the WAC.

The Rebels have five returning starters on defense, including talented end Charles Fisher. He missed the spring with back surgery, but did manage 29 tackles last season.

"The biggest thing we worked on this spring was tackling," Horton said. "We've got to do a better job of that, or it's going to be another long season. We also need to get more aggressive."

The Rebels need the offense to do its part as well. Last year, the full-court press employed by Horton resulted in turnovers or quick touchdowns. Either way, the defense never rested.

This year Horton promises to slow down things. He has a new offensive coordinator and quarterback coach to help him take this different approach.

UNLV has eight returning starters on offense, including a talented receiving corps in Jason Toohey, Damon Williams and Carlos Baker. That threesome combined for 87 receptions and six scores.

Running back Tony Burton also had a flair for catching the football. He had 23 receptions for 277 yards and four touchdowns. He also carried the ball 163 times for 880 yards and five scores.

Now just who will hand off the football to Burton, remains to be seen. The Rebels lost their top two quarterbacks to graduation and didn't come away with a clear cut winner during the spring.

The top two contenders are Kevin Crook and Jon Denton. Crook hit 21 of 39 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown pass against the University of Hawaii. Denton didn't attempt a pass.

"We're really excited about our two quarterbacks," Horton said. "They both have good arms and good presence on the field. As a team, I believe we'll be improved, but because of the caliber of competition, it might not necessarily show up in the win-loss record."

Quick facts

Game day Oct. 19
Where Aloha Stadium
Starters back 14
Last meeting UH 58, UNLV 30
All-time vs. UH 3-9

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