By Christian Caple The Spokesman-Review
LAS VEGAS — Mike Leach has most certainly told his team that it doesn’t matter anymore, but Washington State’s opponent here today provided the opportunity for one of WSU’s highest points of the otherwise forgettable 2011 season.
UNLV came to Pullman as a 14-point underdog a year ago and left a 59-7 loser, the victim of a beating by WSU that, coupled with the previous week’s 64-21 win over Idaho State, gave the Cougars their most points in the first two games of a season since 1907.
So dominant was WSU that day in every phase of the game that Rebels coach Bobby Hauck remarked afterward: “Frankly, we’re kind of where they were two years ago,” referring to WSU’s 1-11 season in 2009.
Not much has changed for the Rebels since, though they’ve at least been competitive in their two losses to begin 2012. The first was a triple-overtime setback at home against Minnesota. The second was harder to swallow, a 17-14 loss to Northern Arizona of the Big Sky, a game UNLV led 14-0 in the first quarter.
WSU coach Mike Leach doesn’t focus on his opponent’s struggles. He’ll likely be starting a new quarterback this week, as Connor Halliday has taken all of the No. 1 reps in practice with Jeff Tuel sidelined by an apparent right knee injury.
“UNLV’s a different team and is a much improved team (from last year),” Leach said. “They’re disappointed with their results, but they’ve got some weapons out there that are getting ready to uncork and we do too.”
One weapon the Rebels have uncorked is junior running back Tim Cornett. He’s been the lone bright spot for UNLV so far, ranking 10th in the nation in yards per game with an average of 134 on 50 total carries.
He was also the lone bright spot in last year’s game against WSU, returning a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown to account for the Rebels’ only points.
WSU defensive coordinator Mike Breske described UNLV’s offensive style as “very conservative. Big, physical offensive line, talented running back, quarterback that manages the game very well.
“They don’t turn the ball over. They haven’t scored a lot of points. (We) don’t want that trend to start. Got to be very, very physical against this offensive line, make sure our run fits are great and watch out for the play-action pass.”
UNLV starts a redshirt freshman, Nick Sherry, at quarterback. He’s 32-for-64 for 355 yards, a touchdown and three interceptions. The Rebels have rushed the ball 84 times this season.
“They’ve got some speed in certain spots, kind of big, thick people,” Leach said. “They’re playing together a lot better than they have in the past.”