Wednesday, December 20|
Home field's a big help for UNLV
By Mel Kiper
Las Vegas Bowl -- Las Vegas, Nev.
Thursday, Dec. 21 (8 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
UNLV vs. Arkansas
In just his second year leading UNLV into battle, John Robinson has once again proven why he should be regarded as one of the elite head coaches in college football. Not only were the Rebels a struggling 3-8 team in '99, but they failed to win a game (0-11) in '98, finished 3-8 in '97, and were able to win just one game (1-11) in '96. Even in '95, the Rebels were just 2-9 overall.
That's why Robinson and his staff should be so proud of their achievements. Not only did the Rebels earn an invite to the Las Vegas Bowl with their 7-5 record, but also completely turned things around at Sam Boyd Stadium. Over the two previous seasons, the Rebels failed to win a home game, going 0-10 during that stretch. This season, the Rebels were unbeaten at home, going 5-0, including an impressive 34-13 victory over bowl-bound Air Force.
Unfortunately, the Rebels weren't able to perform at such a high level on the road, at least over the first five road games when they failed to come away with a victory. Three of the setbacks, however, came against teams headed to bowl games and two could have gone either way. The Rebels lost to Iowa State 37-22 in the season opener, but went down in close calls at Colorado State (20-19) and Ole Miss (43-40 in overtime). To their credit, when the Rebels needed a dramatic change on the road over the final two weeks to garner bowl consideration, Robinson's squad delivered very solid performances. They handled San Diego State 31-24, then held on for a 34-32 victory over Hawaii in the regular-season finale.
For UNLV, athletically gifted quarterback Jason Thomas is the key. When he's on top of his game and at full strength, the Rebels' offense becomes multi-dimensional and very dangerous. Against Arkansas, Thomas's mobility will be a huge factor. The Razorbacks have the talent in the front seven to generate the necessary pressure, with the stick-out performer being super blue-chip senior linebacker Quinton Caver.
Offensively, the Razorbacks were forced to battle their way through injuries that created a lack of consistency from week to week. Heading into the 2000 season, I regarded sophomore Cedric Cobbs as one of the top running backs in college football. The highly skilled 6-foot, 222-pounder can cause problems for any defense, figuring to post rushing totals equal to any back in the nation.
Unfortunately, Cobbs was lost for the season on Sept. 23 against Alabama when he went down with a separated shoulder. Fred Talley provided a nice spark, but is also currently sidelined with a shoulder injury he sustained late in the campaign. When Talley went down, true freshman Brandon Holmes stepped in and did an excellent job. Before Holmes' emergence, there was no question the loss of Cobbs was a major, major setback.
That's why coach Houston Nutt deserves so much credit for finding a way to lead the Razorbacks into the Las Vegas Bowl. Folks, considering the obstacles, this was a huge accomplishment. Not only did they battle through injuries, but the Razorbacks did so in the talent-laden SEC. After a 3-0 start, they hit tough times around midseason, losing four of five during a stretch from Sept. 30 to Nov. 11.
But after Tennessee easily handled them, 63-20, the Razorbacks regrouped and closed out the regular season with back-to-back victories against quality opposition. They edged Mississippi State, who is headed to the Independence Bowl, 17-10 in overtime at Starkville, then finished with a 14-3 victory over Peach Bowl-bound LSU.
With both UNLV and Arkansas, had it not been for victories in their final two games, neither would have finished over .500 and earned an invite to the Las Vegas Bowl.
Obviously, UNLV has a huge advantage with this game being played at Sam Boyd Stadium where the Rebels were unbeaten throughout the regular season. Arkansas, on the other hand, proved its mettle with the overtime win at Mississippi State. Even against the Citrus Bowl-bound Auburn Tigers on the road, Nutt's squad lost only 21-19. Had it not been for injuries, the Razorbacks would have been in contention for a New Year's Day bowl.
Summary: For just the second bowl matchup of the postseason, this should prove to be a very intriguing battle. While the Rebels are vastly improved and have the home-field advantage, Arkansas proved late in the season that it could battle quality competition despite injuries. The Razorbacks will also be led into battle by Caver, the best player on the field. Keep in mind, against Alabama early in the season, the athletic 6-4, 230-pounder recorded 22 stops, the most tackles by a Razorback defender since 1969.
|Quinton Caver has been a one-man wrecking crew for Arkansas.|