Ohio State wraps up the non-conference portion of its season on Saturday at noon, when the Buckeyes host UNLV at Ohio Stadium.
The Rebels don’t stand out as an intimidating opponent for the Buckeyes; they are 1-1 on the year after losing to Howard in their season opener. Ohio State is considered to be a 40.5-point favorite, according to Vegas Insider, over the Vegas-based underdog.
That said, UNLV does have a potentially dangerous offense – the Rebels are ranked eighth in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 557 average yards per game – and are coached by Tony Sanchez, who won a national championship at Bishop Gorman High School in 2014 with a roster that included current Ohio State freshmen Haskell Garrett and Tate Martell.
Eleven Warriors caught up with Mark Anderson, the UNLV football beat writer for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, to learn more about the Sanchez, the Rebels and whether they can challenge the Buckeyes in this week’s edition of Across the Field.
Q: Let's start with the elephant in the room: What happened against Howard? Was that loss as bad as it looks on paper?
Anderson: It was a national embarrassment, losing as a 45-point favorite to an FCS school. The betting line, obviously, was inflated, but that doesn't take away from how bad a defeat it was for UNLV. The Rebels had so many self-inflicted wounds, from three lost fumbles to costly penalties to problems in the red zone. And their defense wore down as the game went on. All that said, I think it would be a different story if the teams played again. UNLV cleaned up a lot of its mistakes a week later at Idaho, and the Rebels would have a much better idea how to game-plan for Howard.
Q: In what ways did the Rebels play better against Idaho? In what ways do you expect them to have improved for this week coming off a bye week?
Anderson: They didn't commit the drive-killing penalties. They had just one turnover. Their defense played much better. It was a lot of what you would expect in going from Week 1 to Week 2. So I think UNLV has to feel better about itself going into Ohio State, but it's still a major challenge in playing the Buckeyes. I'm not sure how much of a difference the bye week makes in that regard.
Q: It's unusual for a coach to go directly from the high school ranks to leading a Football Bowl Subdivision program, but that's exactly what Tony Sanchez did. Now in his third year as UNLV's head coach, how successfully do you think he has handled that transition?
Anderson: He did something other coaches in similar positions didn't do, and that's hire a veteran staff. His offensive coordinator and offensive line coach were at Nebraska. His defensive coordinator has been all over the Pac-12. Sanchez also ran his Bishop Gorman practices much like a college program. He recognizes the importance of improving facilities, and is close to breaking ground on a new football building. So I think the transition has been smoother than for the other coaches who made the jump. Even with all of that, Sanchez still has to prove he can turn around the program. This is a big season to show just how close the Rebels are to doing that.
Q: This game will be the first time UNLV and Ohio State have ever played each other in football. What do you think it means for the Rebels to have the opportunity to play at Ohio State?
Anderson: I don't think the players feel much pressure because the expectations are so low. It's a great chance for them to see they measure up against one of the nation's top programs. Depending on how they play, it could pay dividends when they get into Mountain West play next week.
Q: What are UNLV's strengths, and do you think any of those strengths will pose a serious threat to the Buckeyes?
Anderson: UNLV has an outstanding running game, which is fourth nationally with 350.5 yards per game. The Rebels also have a redshirt freshman quarterback in Armani Rogers who is really talented, though green. They hope to open up the running game by getting the passing game going. If they can do that, the Rebels will be able to not only move the ball and create chances to score, but eat up the clock and keep their defense and Ohio State's offense off the field.
Q: Is the 40-point spread for this game justified, or do the Rebels deserve a little more credit?
Anderson: I almost always think 40 points is too much because too many crazy things can happen. Ohio State could be sloppy with the ball early and set UNLV up with some early scoring chances, and suddenly the game is closer than expected. But if the Buckeyes play up to their capabilities, it probably will be a very long day for UNLV.