One of Tony Sanchez’s favorite quotes is from John Wayne: “Life is getting up one more time than you’ve been knocked down.”
The UNLV football coach was knocked down by Saturday’s embarrassing season-ending 45-10 loss to rival UNR, but got up Sunday morning to resume the difficult task of rebuilding the Rebels’ long-suffering program.
“It’s frustrating. I’m not used to this. I wake up out of bed like, ‘Argh, I just want to feel good about everything,’” Sanchez told reporters Monday at UNLV. “When (athletic director) Tina (Kunzer-Murphy) gave me the job, I’ll never forget her looking me in the face and saying, ‘Before you say yes, understand this is a tough job.’
“Well, I kind of understood it. I’m understanding it a whole lot more now. But that’s the beauty of it.”
Sanchez, 7-17 in his first two seasons at UNLV after building Bishop Gorman into a national prep power, has studied teams that have made dramatic turnarounds and reminded his players Monday that Wyoming won only six games the past two seasons and on Saturday will play for the Mountain West championship.
“Don’t feel sorry for yourself, because no one else is,” Sanchez said. “Just man up, go to work, don’t worry about outside noise, keep driving forward and doing what we’re doing and getting better.”
In assessing his second season as Rebels coach, Sanchez took a broad view of the program, pointing to significant progress made in the areas of recruiting, fundraising, academics, and strength and conditioning. But as Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells once said, “You are what your record says you are.”
This season, the record said UNLV was 4-8, which was one win more than last season, but went under the season win total that ranged from 4½ to 5½ at Las Vegas sports books and represented only a marginal improvement for a squad that Sanchez said had a realistic shot to go to a bowl game.
“We’ve got a ways to go. We’re not moving as fast as you would like,” Sanchez said. “You’d love to fast-forward change. But is change occurring? Yeah, it’s evident in a lot of ways.”
The Rebels had a helter-skelter season, losing 33-30 in overtime to Idaho as 14-point home favorites Sept. 24 before pulling off a dramatic 41-38 comeback win at Hawaii on Oct. 15 as 10-point underdogs.
UNLV then lost consecutive games in which it was favored — to Colorado State (42-23) and San Jose State (30-24) — before bouncing back with its biggest win of the Sanchez era, an epic 69-66 triple-overtime upset of Wyoming as an 8-point home underdog.
After a respectable effort at Boise State, the Rebels then inexplicably didn’t show up for the Battle for the Fremont Cannon, getting blown out as 10-point favorites.
In hindsight, UNLV’s losses to Idaho and Colorado State weren’t as bad as they appeared. Both seven-win teams are headed to bowl games, and the Rams whipped San Diego State 63-31 on Saturday in San Diego.
The Rebels put up some impressive numbers on offense despite being decimated by season-ending injuries to four starting receivers and starting three different quarterbacks. UNLV scored 31.6 points per game, its highest average since 1980, and finished 16th in the nation in rushing (241.5 yards per game).
But the defense and special teams ranked among the worst units in the nation. The Rebels allowed more than 30 points (36.8) and 400 yards (430.1) per game for the ninth straight season and were consistently beaten by the deep ball.
“The biggest thing to me this year was we’ve got to get better in the secondary. Our corner play was not very good this year. Bottom line,” Sanchez said. “Early in the year, we struggled with our safety play, but it got better. But we never got much better on the edge. That’s where we got hurt. How many times did we get to third-and-long, and we could not get our butts off the field?”
Sanchez said offensive coordinator Barney Cotton and defensive coordinator Kent Baer did a “tremendous job.”
“Kent’s got a bigger challenge. We knew our defense was kind of broken when we got here,” Sanchez said. “He’s done a good job getting our guys in position. How many times did you see a corner right there on the hip and he can’t make a play in space?
“My job is to evaluate if we’re putting our guys in position to be successful, and if we’re doing that and we’re still not successful, then we’ve got to go recruit better.”
Sanchez and his staff are on the road trying to do just that, while hoping highly touted freshman quarterback Armani Rogers, who redshirted this season, proves to be one of the solutions to the problems that have plagued the program for years.
”The way we’re going to win here at UNLV is having a plan, sticking to it and being tougher than the situation,” Sanchez said. “I just think we’re going to outwill this son of a gun.”
Contact reporter Todd Dewey at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0354. Follow @tdewey33 on Twitter.
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