Stewart was quick to point out that three of UNLV’s losses have come to teams that were ranked in the top 25 -- a season-opening 41-21 defeat at the hands of Wisconsin, a 38-10 setback at Utah, and a 44-26 loss against Nevada this past Saturday.
But first-year head coach Bobby Hauck’s team may be starting to find its stride just a bit, even in spite of its most recent setback against the Wolfpack, an in-state rival.
“They have come on a bit in the last two games,” Stewart said. “They’re learning their system. The coaches have been there since spring, but it’s a new takeover and the entire staff changed.”
Indeed, while the 44 points Nevada scored may seem like an indictment of UNLV’s defense, that total is actually the second-lowest scoring output the Wolfpack has been held to this season.
That contest followed the Rebels’ only win of the season thus far, a 41-10 drubbing of Mountain West Conference foe New Mexico.
So while a first glance at UNLV’s record would indicate Stewart’s Mountaineers should be in for a cakewalk at Milan Puskar Stadium on Saturday, the third-year head coach didn’t express similar feelings in his weekly news conference Tuesday afternoon.
“They are a good football team and their coach is a dandy,” Stewart said.
“Bobby Hauck has won over 80 percent of his games. He is on track to be a great one -- he is a great one, and he’s a winner. I like what he is doing with this team.”
“You can come in and take over a program and wholesale, wipe the slate clean. He hasn’t done that. He’s got some good players here, but he’s also left some seniors, some redshirt seniors, some juniors and some freshmen. So it’s not like he went in and just wiped the slate clean and said, ‘What you all have done has been not good, so I’m going to get rid of you.’ This guy is doing it right.”
While Hauck hasn’t made “wholesale” changes, he has given young players ample opportunity to prove themselves thus far. A total of 13 true freshmen have seen action for the Rebels thus far this season, which ties for the fifth-most true freshmen playing for any program at the FBS level this season.
“They’re playing a lot of people,” Stewart said. “And I told our staff we need to play more people this week than we did last week.”
But it is a senior that takes the snaps for Hauck’s UNLV squad. Omar Clayton took over the quarterbacking duties in the middle of the Rebels’ loss to Wisconsin in the season-opener, and the job has been his since.
Clayton had narrowly lost out in a battle for the starting job in fall camp, but the job had been his in seasons previous. Indeed, he is third on UNLV’s all-time list of passing yardage leaders, and he is the only Rebel player to rush for over 100 yards and throw for over 300 in a single game.
That all impressed Stewart upon review of the film, but what really stood out was Clayton’s toughness.
“I saw Clayton, No. 2, take a shot on a corner fire [blitz] from out on the boundary,” Stewart recalled. “He got hit at Reno [against Nevada] and I don’t know how that guy is walking. He’s tough. He hung in there. He’s a leader. You could see the players rally around him.
“He got right up and the next series, comes right down the field and takes them in [for a touchdown]. That tells me something about this Clayton youngster.”
While Stewart gave several injury updates during a conference call on Monday, one player he neglected to mention was defensive end Will Clarke.
On Tuesday, he updated the media on the progress of Clarke’s recovery from an ankle injury, which has held the redshirt freshman out of action for several weeks.
“Will is expected to play this weekend, but I don’t know how much,” Stewart said.
Clarke, who saw action in the first two games of the season but has not played since, was anchoring one end of West Virginia’s four-man front in passing situations on third downs. Since his injury, the Mountaineers have not used the four-man front at all.
While a Big East Conference opener against South Florida looms only five days after this Saturday’s match-up with the Rebels, Stewart said he has not looked ahead to film on the Bulls at all.
Indeed, time and time again, the head coach said his entire focus was on beating UNLV this weekend before moving on to any concerns about USF.
“Here is the thing: we have to first win this football game,” Stewart said.
That was reflected in his attitudes about injured players, who he said would all see action against the Rebels as long as they were medically cleared (though some may be limited in terms of how many snaps they see in an attempt to keep them fresh).
Stewart said he didn’t feel like he needed to spend much time reminding players to only focus on this weekend’s game, as he expressed trust in his senior leaders to do so for him.
“They are going to be told by J.T. Thomas, Chris Neild and Scooter Berry that our whole emphasis is on UNLV,” he said.
Stewart was joined at the dais by Christopher Enourato of the FBI, who announced that his organization would be distributing child identification kits to those attending the UNLV game.
The kits allow parents to take DNA swabs of their children and file them away in case of an abduction. The FBI can then use the information to help track down missing children.
Enourato, the father of former WVU baseball pitcher Chris Enourato, said 110,000 such kits have been distributed at Mountaineer football games since the program’s inception nine years ago.