PROVO — Even though BYU has crushed UNLV by a combined score of 107-21 the past two seasons, coach Bronco Mendenhall is not concerned that his team will take the Rebels lightly as it prepares to visit Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday night.
Mendenhall said it won't be hard to get his team keyed up to play UNLV, which nearly upset nationally ranked Wisconsin and blanked Utah, 27-0, earlier this season at home.
"It's not difficult when you watch (the Rebels) play and see how competitively they played against Wisconsin (and) having seen our rival go down and lose there," he explained.
The Cougars resume practice today after taking the weekend off.
While UNLV fell at Air Force, 31-14, last Saturday, Mendenhall said the Rebels (2-4, 1-1) are much improved. Going into the season, they had a 4-19 record in two seasons under coach Mike Sanford.
"When you watch them play, they're playing with more effort, they're playing with more ownership to me," Mendenhall said. "They've made significant progress. Where they'll finish and how that will all play out, I'm not certain. Just like we're not last year's team, they're not last year's team, either. What I frame to our team each and every week is, the history of the rivalry can only be acknowledged from the outside."
What stands out most in Mendenhall's mind is how the Rebels played against the Badgers.
"The Wisconsin (game) was what grabbed all of our attention early on," Mendenhall said. "Even against (nationally ranked) Hawaii, it was 14-7 right before half. It was very competitive. When you watch them play, they're capable, and I've seen improvement. It won't take long for our players to realize it's a different team."
The Cougars walloped the Rebels in Las Vegas, 55-14, in 2005. Last season in Provo, BYU smashed UNLV, 52-7.
Sanford told the Las Vegas Sun recently that he doesn't believe BYU has been running up the score on his team.
Leading 45-7 with 3:21 remaining in last year's game, the Cougars recorded a touchdown on an 87-yard run by reserve running back Mike Hague. Sanford said he didn't take umbrage with that score, however, because BYU wasn't intentionally attempting to tack on more points. Hague took a handoff, ran into the line, shook off some would-be tacklers, bounced outside and raced down the sideline for a TD.
"People thought that I had a problem with (Mendenhall) last year or two years ago, (but) I didn't have any problem with Bronco because I knew he was doing things with class," Sanford said. "I think if it's within the framework of their offense, you can tell what (an opponent's) intent is. It's also different if a team is trying to get a first down on third down and they throw a pass and it breaks for a touchdown — that's different than throwing bombs on first down."
Mendenhall, meanwhile, is hoping the Cougars can build on their 31-24 victory Sept. 29 at New Mexico.
"Our team in general is moving forward in terms of their identity. Their competitive will is strong, their effort is strong and their execution still has some room to improve," Mendenhall said. "That was a difficult setting to go in (at New Mexico) and play and they played well enough to win. There's a strong message in that. It won't always be perfect, but they did make enough plays to win. That's really what I've been focusing on."