LAS VEGAS — UNLV coach Mike Sanford is learning first-hand about how difficult it is to turn a football program around.
Under Sanford, the Rebels posted two wins in each of his first two seasons. But he inherited a program that hasn't experienced a winning season since 2000 and has enjoyed only three winning seasons since 1987.
Still, there have been some signs of progress.
UNLV (2-4 overall, 1-1 in the Mountain West) opened the season with a victory at Utah State — its first road win in three years. The following week, the Rebels battled nationally ranked Wisconsin before falling at home, 20-13. After a loss at nationally ranked Hawaii, UNLV shocked Utah, 27-0.
"They whipped us pretty good," Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said of the Rebels. "They're definitely an improved football team."
With that win, UNLV equaled its victory total from each of the past three seasons. It also made the Rebels 2-0 this season against teams from the Beehive State.
Then came back-to-back losses to archrival Nevada-Reno and MWC foe Air Force.
"We lost a game tonight, but I'm not going to allow this team to be defeated," Sanford said after his team fell to Air Force. "Defeat means that you give up, and we're not giving up. We're going to fight back."
The Rebels get their chance Saturday night at Sam Boyd Stadium, where they host defending Mountain West Conference champion BYU. Sanford knows a victory over the Cougars would be a huge step forward for his team.
"We've got an exciting but challenging matchup with BYU," said Sanford, whose squad has lost by a combined 107-21 to the Cougars in 2005 and 2006.
One of the keys to changing the fortunes of UNLV football, Sanford said, is changing the mindset.
"Our biggest thing is, we've had to overcome the mental hangover from the past. That's an ongoing thing," he explained. "When you're in the process of turning a football program around, like we're in the process of doing, part of it is getting good coaches, part of it is recruiting good players. But the other part of it is changing the mentality. In our case, that's an ongoing thing that we're working on to develop."
UNLV's offense, led by redshirt freshman quarterback Travis Dixon, is ranked No. 109 in scoring offense (18.5 points per game). Running back Frank Summers is among the MWC's top rushers, averaging 86 yards per game. The 5-foot-10, 240-pound Summers is a bruising back who can be tough to bring down.
"We just have to hit him low and have good leverage and great tackling," said BYU cornerback Brandon Howard.
Defensively, the Rebels have been solid at times but prone to give up big plays. Linebacker Beau Bell is one of the top players at his position in the MWC.
"They're a more traditional-style defense than what we saw against New Mexico. They're more disciplined," said BYU quarterback Max Hall. "They're not going to do a bunch of crazy blitzes, although I think they'll blitz us more than they've shown in their previous games. I'm excited to play them. It's going to be a dogfight again. But if we come out and execute, we'll be hard to stop on offense."
STREAKS ON THE LINE: BYU is looking for its 11th straight MWC victory, its eighth consecutive MWC road win, and its seventh victory in a row over UNLV in Las Vegas. The Cougars have never lost to the Rebels in Sin City.
BYU AND BYES: The Cougars are 36-27-2 all-time in games following a bye week. Since 1984, they are 19-8 after a week off. Saturday's game will mark the third time since 2001 BYU has played UNLV after a bye week.
VERY POSSESSIVE: BYU is ranked No. 4 nationally in time of possession. The Cougar offense holds on to the ball for an average of 33 minutes, 49 seconds per game.
COLLIE'S RECORDS: BYU wide receiver Austin Collie rolled up 366 all-purpose yards against Tulsa, breaking Pete Van Valkenburg's 35-year-old school record. Collie had 245 return yards and 121 receiving yards. Van Valkenburg had 306 all-purpose yards in a 33-14 win over Wyoming in November, 1972. Collie's yardage total also surpassed Larry Ned's MWC single-game record of 319 yards in San Diego State's 2001 win over Eastern Illinois.
On the air
BYU (3-2, 2-0) at UNLV (2-4, 1-1)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m.,
Sam Boyd Stadium
Radio: 1160AM, 102.7FM, TV: The mtn.