UNLV's title dreams could be on the line against Utah

Updated: October 17, 2003, 8:54 PM ET

LAS VEGAS -- UNLV coach John Robinson knows Saturday's homecoming game is important. He knows how much he wants to beat Utah. It's just a matter of doing it.

The Rebels (4-2, 0-1 Mountain West). will be in a bind if they lose against conference leader Utah (5-1, 2-0) when the two teams meet Saturday afternoon at Sam Boyd Stadium.

It would mean UNLV would have to finish the season with a five-game winning streak to have any hope of capturing the Mountain West championship. It would also mean the Rebels would have to rely on two other teams to defeat the Utes.

"This is a very important game for us," Robinson said.

The Rebels are coming off a 24-7 loss last week at Air Force, but they have kept their spirits up.

"In conference play anything can happen," junior linebacker Ryan Claridge said. "They might be on a roll, but so are we. I don't think we're playing bad football. We might have had a few bad quarters but that doesn't mean we have a bad team. We're still playing good football and we're capable of playing even better football."

If UNLV upsets the Utes, a 2{-point favorite, it would create a logjam of sorts in conference standings. Every team would have at least one loss while two other schools, BYU and San Diego State, enter the weekend with two defeats.

The Rebels defense, which has forced 17 turnovers, will be tested by Utah's offense which is dangerous running and passing.

Utah has senior tailback Brandon Warfield, who is the conference's leading rusher averaging 122.2 yards per game, along with the nation's leading receiver in Paris Warren, who has 8.2 catches per game.

Sophomore quarterback Alex Smith also will pose a threat. He has won the Mountain West Conference's offensive player of the week award for the past two weeks and has yet to throw an interception this season.

"We're a physical football team," said first-year Utah coach Urban Meyer. "We run first, pass second."

Utah has used physical play to dominate the Rebels, winning the past seven meetings, including every year since 1999. The closest game in recent years was the Utes' 28-17 victory last season.

"Their offensive line is as strong as always," UNLV linebacker Adam Seward said. "It's a little more spread out, but the concept about playing physically is pretty much the same."

The Rebels might be in their best position to change the trend. UNLV has its biggest offensive line, with five of the seven regulars weighing at least 300 pounds.

"Every year since I've been here, (Utah has been) known for their physicality," UNLV center Dominic Furio said. "They pretty much have beaten us every year. So that's something that's going to have to change this year."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index