But Nevada coach Chris Ault says there’s something more important than beating the rival UNLV Rebels on Saturday before a packed Mackay Stadium — beating anybody, period.
“We are 1-3,” he said.
Nevada’s lone victory in opening the season with four road games came at San Jose State, 17-14.
“We are not playing well,” Ault said of the defending Western Athletic Conference co-champions who beat then-No. 3 Boise State 34-31 in overtime last Nov. 26 for the signature win in a 13-1 season. “We need to find a way to play better and win. Whether it was UNLV or somebody else, it really wouldn’t make any difference at this particular juncture.”
Don’t get the Wolf Pack’s coach of 27 years wrong. His team is determined to extend the six-game winning streak in the battle for the Fremont Cannon that has given it a 21-15 advantage in the series.
“It’s always a big game up here in Nevada,” Ault said.
“It’s North vs. South,” added Nevada quarterback Tyler Lantrip. “Us seniors have never lost and we want to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Nevada’s defense is led by defensive tackle Brett Roy with five sacks and linebacker James-Michael Johnson. The unit played its best game of the year in last week’s loss at then No. 4 Boise State (30-10), but the Wolf Pack offense continues to sputter.
“Out biggest nemesis right now is ourselves,” said Lantrip, who has been starting as the heir apparent to Colin Kaepernick but finds himself fighting redshirt-freshman Cody Fajardo for the job after throwing five interceptions against only two TDs.
“We’re still confident,” Lantrip said. “We know what we are doing. It’s just execution.”
Nevada’s other losses were in the opener at then No. 9 Oregon, 69-20, and two weeks ago at Texas Tech, 35-34.
Ault knew they’d miss Kaepernick, now with the San Francisco 49ers, but had hoped the inconsistent offense would have started to jell by now.
“We aren’t where I thought we would be,” Ault said this week. “I thought we’d be further along to be honest with you, on both sides of the ball.”
“Understanding the schedule and the road and all that other stuff, I still felt we would have played better football,” he said. “We are climbing the mountain. We’ve got a ways to go.”
UNLV coach Bobby Hauck isn’t crazy about the 1-3 record his team brings into what is expected to be a sold-out Mackay Stadium for the 4 p.m. kickoff. With their only win a big upset of Hawaii in Las Vegas (40-20), the Rebels fell to Wisconsin and Washington State by a combined score of 110-24 before suffering an even more embarrassing loss two weeks ago to Southern Utah, 41-16
But Hauck said his team put in good work in practice during last week’s bye week and is excited about the rivalry matchup.
“Obviously, going up to Reno and trying to beat the Pack is a great challenge,” he said.
UNLV sophomore quarterback Caleb Herring threw three interceptions last week, but has thrown for five touchdowns and is averaging 152 yards passing a game.
He’s also a threat to run.
“He’s a good athlete and he’s very capable of hurting a defense,” Ault said.
The local sports books have made Nevada nearly a three-touchdown favorite over UNLV on Saturday.
The last time the Rebels beat the Wolf Pack was in Las Vegas in 2004 — the fourth in the row for UNLV at the time and the last season John Robinson was coach. They haven’t had a winning season since the 2000 team went 8-5.
Hauck said he took the UNLV job a year ago because he believes the football program has “great potential.” He’s generally pleased with the progress the Rebels are making in the second year of what he knew would be a challenging rebuilding effort.
“We’ve only had three winning seasons in the last 25 years so there’s been no surprises here,” Hauck said.
“I’m pretty excited about what we’ve got going frankly,” he said. “I think recruiting has gone well. I like the guys we have in our locker room. I like our attitude.”
“I think people in Las Vegas are hungry for us to win and want us to win, so I’m enthused.”