LAS VEGAS – Leif Fautanu is ready for his homecoming Saturday night for several reasons.
Yes, the Honolulu-born offensive lineman, a two-year returning starter for UNLV, is excited to see his friends and family after making the near 3,000-mile trek this week.
But, more importantly, he’s ready to keep the Rebels’ bowl hopes alive in the annual Ninth Island Showdown against his hometown team.
“With this team, knowing our backs are against the wall, we kind of (need to) come out of the corner swinging, especially with a bowl game on the line,” Fautanu said. “We’ve got to take it one (game) at a time. The team realizes how big this game is.”
That, they do.
With two games remaining on the schedule – and UNLV needing to win both to become bowl eligible for the first time in eight years – the Rebels (4-6, 2-4 Mountain West) will meet Hawaii (2-9, 1-5 MW) for task No. 1. at 8:00 p.m. PT Saturday at Aloha Stadium.
A victory would snap a five-game losing streak and put the Rebels in position to face arch rival Nevada in the final game of the season with a bowl berth on the line. Head coach Marcus Arroyo insists none of his preparation or messaging this week has, or will change, leading up to kickoff in Hawaii’s capital.
“If there’s anything we’ve set the tone with in this program right away is that the sense of urgency is not just something you can flip on,” Arroyo said. “We’ve reiterated that as a program since we got here.
“We put more pressure internally on ourselves as coaches and as a program than most people would care to even fathom. And I think our guys understand that. … The guys understand the demand and I think that brings out the best in everybody.”
The Rebels have gotten spurts of their best over the last two games, but they’re still waiting for it to come together as a collective unit and are desperate to recreate the magic that allowed them to start the season 4-1.
Coming off narrow losses against San Diego State and Fresno State in consecutive weeks – games that could have easily gone the other way and taken pressure off a late-season rally – have led the Rebels here.
The job is clear: Beat two of the West Division’s weakest teams in back-to-back weeks and you’re in. Hawaii enters Saturday’s game riding a four-game losing streak, including a 41-34 home setback over the weekend, against Utah State.
UNLV enters the Ninth Island Showdown as an 11-point favorite on the road. The home team has won this matchup in 11 of the last 13 years, with only the UNLV 2016 win in Honolulu and the Hawaii 2019 win in Las Vegas bucking the trend. So what will it take this time around?
“Our biggest thing is stopping the run first and making them throw the ball,” senior defensive lineman Darius Johnson said. “I think the whole defense is excited for it.”
The offense is just as excited.
But, unlike last week, they know they will need to finish drives with touchdowns instead of field goals. Much of that will fall on the shoulders of quarterback Doug Brumfield, who appears to be regaining the poise that made him an all-conference performer through the first half of the season before missing time due to injuries.
“It’s just a matter of execution now,” Fautanu said. “There’s no more ‘We’ll get it next week.’”
- Hawaii leads the overall series 18-13, but the Rebels have won 10 of the last 18 meetings, including last year’s game in Las Vegas, 27-13. Five of the last nine games have been decided by one score.
- UNLV has three players from the Aloha State on its roster: Center Leif Fautanu (University Lab School), backup quarterback Cameron Friel (Kailua High) and defensive back Kilinahe Mendiola-Jensen (Punahous School).
- First-year Hawaii coach Timmy Chang faced UNLV twice as a record-setting QB for the Warriors, throwing for a combined 716 yards but losing both times to the Rebels (34-32 in Honolulu in 2000 and 33-22 in Las Vegas in 2003).
- The Rebels have 24 sacks this fall from 11 different players. That is two more than the squad had all of last season and the most for the program since getting 27 in 2004.