LAS VEGAS, Nev., -- Year one of the Marcus Arroyo era in Sin City was less than ideal.

The Rebels suffered through a winless 2020 campaign. Scores, they were often lopsided, like the 45-14 victory posted by Wyoming in UNLV's shiny new stadium just a stones throw from the Las Vegas strip. COVID-19, the worldwide pandemic, paid plenty of visits to the Rebs' locker room, too.

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Despite the skeleton roster, Arroyo sent his team on the field to take on the Cowboys in late November.

"You got to do things like that," Arroyo said during the opening day of Mountain West Media Days Wednesday in Las Vegas. "Those (losses) are ones you go back to. You found a way to win somewhere in the progression of your culture."

Just playing a meaningful college football game with a young roster was imperative, too, the rookie head coach said.

"They showed up, they played their tail off and there wasn't a big fight amongst each other and that's part of what we had to do," he continued. "What we've inherited ... we didn't have any time together at all. There was learning opportunities like that in everything we did more than just who won or lost."

Arroyo once took the reins of a brand new offense in Laramie. The year was 2009. The Cowboys, and their new head coach Dave Christensen, were also looking to change the culture. UW's new offensive coordinator was tasked with finding a capable quarterback and installing a spread offense that Christensen had been known for during his time at Missouri.

That, of course, started with recruiting -- the "bloodline," Arroyo added.

He knew just who to call.

"Austyn was committed to me at San Jose State," Arroyo said of Austyn Carta-Samuels, who quarterbacked the Cowboys in 2009 and '10. "He grew up coming to our camps, so when I left, Austyn came."

There were also newcomers like Mike Purcell, Alvester Alexander, Shamiel Gary and Chris McNeill. The cupboard wasn't completely bare, either. The defense featured a trio of future NFL players in Chris Prosinski, Mitch Unrein and Tashaun Gipson. Brian Hendricks, Gabe Knapton and Josh Biezuns also helped solidify that side of the ball.

Still, the thought was a major rebuild would have to take place for this group to compete.

That statement still stands true, but something unexpected started to unfold that fall, beginning with a 4-2 start and a 2-0 mark in Mountain West Conference play.

"That was a an awesome year, because I think there was really low expectations," Arroyo said. "I mean, it's been very similar to the kind of places I've been. It's like, you guys aren't worth anything. Well, no, we just have to work our tail off and everything will work out.

"That was a fun year, man. We bought in."

Led by the freshman Carta-Samuels, the Cowboys knocked off San Diego State on the road and added a 17-16 victory over Border War rival Colorado State in Ft. Collins the season finale. The freshman signal caller put his stamp on that one, stiff-arming his way to cap a 49-yard touchdown run. Placekicker Ian Watts put the game on ice with a 33-yard field goal with 1:27 to go.

Wyoming was bowl eligible for the first time since 2004.

The work, however, wasn't done.

"We went to the New Mexico Bowl and played Fresno State, who we had a ton of respect for," Arroyo said of the Cowboys' thrilling 35-28 double-overtime victory over the Bulldogs. "Shoot, we found a way to win. That was a really fun season. It was a really good time. It was a testament to really just focusing on ourselves, because everything about it said you're not supposed to be worth it."

Carta-Samuels was named the Offensive MVP of that bowl game after throwing for 201 yards and tossing three touchdown passes. He added 71 yards on the ground. He stuck around Laramie for one more season before transferring to Vanderbilt. Arroyo left after a 3-9 season in 2010, too, surfacing at Cal where he also coached the quarterbacks.

A dozen years and six jobs later, Arroyo smiled and said he was in a "Covid fog" when trying to think back to that surprise season on the high plains.

"Dave asked if I had ever been to Laramie, Wyoming," Arroyo laughed. "I said, 'no, I think we maybe drove through it on the way to Jackson Hole or something.'

"That would've been the long way."

Arroyo's focus is squarely on turning the UNLV program around. The resources are in place. Allegiant Stadium, which sat empty throughout the 2020 campaign, is the new crown jewel of the conference. Arroyo hopes that building -- along with a culture shift -- will start equating to success on the field.

Still, he knows full well what he had behind him for two seasons in Laramie.

"Laramie, they have a lot of pride in that town, which I like," he said. "I'm from a town of 1,000 people. I thought I connected to the kind of people, the work ethic and the ruggedness of them all."

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