LAS VEGAS >> Usually it’s UNLV men’s basketball team that generates the buzz around campus.
But this week a lot of the talk is focused on the Rebels football team — which has won two games each of the last three seasons — and whether it will win its fourth in a row Saturday against Hawaii at Sam Boyd Stadium.
A victory would be the program’s first four-game win streak in the regular season since winning seven straight in 1984.
UNLV (3-2, 1-0 Mountain West) snapped a 23-game road losing streak two weeks ago at New Mexico and is halfway to becoming bowl eligible.
“It’s been fun the last three weeks around here, I think everybody’s enjoyed it and I think it’s some well-deserved success because these people have been working awfully hard,” coach Bobby Hauck said. “We’ve done some things that haven’t been done in a while around here. There’s a lot of football left, but we’re at least in position to have a good season and I think that’s exciting.”
The Rebels are above the .500 mark after five games for the first time since going 3-2 to open their 2008 season. The emergence of quarterback Caleb Herring can be pointed to as the turning point in the season.
Herring replaced Nick Sherry on the team’s third possession on Sept. 14 against Central Michigan, and seized control of the offense to complete 24 of 28 passes for 266 yards and three touchdowns. Herring’s .857 completion percentage broke Randall Cunningham’s record from 1974, when he posted a .808 completion percentage against Idaho State.
“When Caleb is on target and accurate and seeing things, he does a really nice job,” Hauck said. “When you have a guy at quarterback that’s playing well, it helps.”
Herring leads the nation in completion percentage (.750).
“I’m really just trying to be a vital piece to the success of the offense,” said Herring, who played most of the 2012 campaign as a wide receiver. “My focus was never on the individual aspect of it. Definitely as a team I knew we were capable of doing some good things, but it was more focused on the success we could possibly have as a team.”
In his last appearance, Herring hooked up with receiver Devante Davis on three touchdowns to overcome New Mexico’s record-setting ground attack in a wild 56-42 victory. Herring threw four touchdowns, including the game-winner to Davis with 4:46 remaining. Running back Tim Cornett also had three touchdowns while rushing for a career-high 179 yards on 25 carries.
Davis, a junior, is second in the nation with eight touchdown receptions, while Cornett, a senior, is tied with 14 others at 12th in the nation with seven rushing TDs. Also chipping in with nationally contending numbers is sophomore punter Logan Yunker, whose 46.4 yards per punt ranks sixth in the country.
Hauck’s brother, Tim, who spent the last four seasons coaching in the NFL, has also played a significant role, taking over as defensive coordinator and instilling confidence in a unit that surely would have given in when the Rebels have fallen behind by double digits on multiple occasions this year.
“For me it was just a matter of giving them a new perspective,” Tim Hauck said. “Their effort is unbelievable. If you put on the tape you can see guys swarming the football. The effort and their attitude and the way they go out and play is flat out amazing.”
The former NFL veteran who spent 13 years as a defensive back with six teams said the key has been keeping the defense focused.
“When we get scored on … he always reminds us we’re just making fixable mistakes,” senior defensive back Tim Hasson said. “He reminds us when we play sound football … we’ll stop them. Our second half adjustments have been huge. I think every second half, everybody has calmed down and we’ve come out and played better defense. We’re finishing games, something we didn’t do last year. That’s really the difference maker.”
While the Rebels’ defense ranks 81st in the country overall and their rushing D is the second-worst in the country, they’re ranked No. 1 in allowing 134 passing yards per game. They also rank second in nation in fewest penalties per game (2.6) and fewest penalty yards per game (24.8).
“One thing (we) talked about all spring and summer was mentality and learning how to win and how adversity can affect them. I really believe they’ve learned how to win,” Tim Hauck said. “And they almost have a little bit of a swagger to them.”