Rebels at numbers disadvantage against deep Ohio State

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L.E. Baskow

UNLV’s Lexington Thomas (3) looks up for the touchdown signal over the Howard defense during their home-opening football game on Saturday, September 2, 2017.

There are plenty of reasons for UNLV to be wary of Ohio State in advance of Saturday’s matchup (9 a.m., Big Ten Network). The Buckeyes are one of the nation’s best teams (ranked No. 10 in the country, even after last weekend’s loss to Oklahoma), they can score a ton of points, they have a bushel of future pros dotting the defensive lineup, and Urban Meyer has proven to be one of his generation’s best as both a program builder and game-day coach.

Oh, and the game is being played at the Horseshoe, in front of more than 100,000 Ohio State diehards.

But during his Tuesday press conference, UNLV coach Tony Sanchez didn’t dwell on those factors when discussing his team’s uphill battle.

What seems to be concerning Sanchez the most as game time approaches is OSU’s depth.

As Sanchez has said several times throughout training camp and the first two weeks of the season, UNLV has a handful of players who can play on any college team in the country, and the fans know who they are: wide receiver Devonte Boyd, quarterback Armani Rogers, running back Lexington Thomas, defensive tackle Mike Hughes and a few others. The thing is, Ohio State’s roster is packed with four- and five-star athletes at nearly every position, with some spots going two or three deep.

The Buckeyes’ defensive line in particular is stacked. Ohio State lists six starters and co-starters along the front four, and all of them can play at the highest level. Starting ends Tyquan Lewis and Sam Hubbard are expected NFL draft picks, as is tackle Dre’Mont Jones. Sophomore end Nick Bosa is a rising star in his own right. Sophomore backups Jonathon Cooper and Jashon Cornell were four-star recruits rated among the best in their class. Freshman reserve end Chase Young was the No. 8 prospect in the Class of 2017.

It’s a lot of talent, and the sheer numbers can seem overwhelming from UNLV’s perspective.

“That’s probably the biggest concern you have when you’re a non-Power 5 playing a Power 5 team of that stature,” Sanchez said. “We’re going to rotate six, seven defensive linemen into the course of the game; they’re going to rotate eight, nine, 10, 11. They’re going to play multiple guys up front. They’re just going to have a lot of depth in a lot of areas, so it’s hard to really wear down a defensive front like that when they’re constantly rolling guys in.”

UNLV self-identifies as a running team, and with good reason — through two games, the Rebels are third in the nation in both rushing yards per game (357.0) and rushing yards per attempt (7.1) — but churning out ground gains against Ohio State will not be easy. The Rebels’ experienced offensive line was able to push around Howard and Idaho, but OSU is clearly in a different stratosphere, and with the Buckeyes’ depth up front, they’re not likely to tire in the second half as Idaho did.

While Sanchez wants his running attack to help shorten the game and keep his defense fresh, he knows the Rebels probably won’t be breaking off long touchdown runs at will.

“We know we’ve been a pretty successful run football team, and that’s who we are and that’s kind of how we’ve built ourselves,” Sanchez said, “but we’ve got a talented receiving corps, and if you’re going to have an opportunity in a game like this, you’re going to have to stretch the field. You’re not just going to be able to sit there, run the ball 50 times right at a front like that. They’re pretty stout up there.”

That will leave the UNLV offense navigating a delicate balance between ball control and aggressive risk-taking. That means the spotlight will at some point shine on Rogers, and the freshman quarterback will be tasked with picking up key first downs, either with his arm or his legs.

“The best thing you can do for your defense is keep your defense off the field,” Sanchez said. “If we can sustain some drives, that’ll mean a lot. At the same time, I don’t think it’s going to be a ‘three yards and a cloud of dust’ type deal for us. We’re going to have to take some shots, calculated. We’re going to be diverse in our play-calling. We’re going to have to put together some drives that allow our defense to rest up and not put them on the field so fast. That’s the biggest way you can get yourself in trouble. We’re going to be aggressive. We’re not going to be passive at all. We’re going to go in there and do our thing.”

If Rogers can avoid the Ohio State defensive line, keep the chains moving and keep the Ohio State offense on the sideline, UNLV could manage to hang around for a little while.

Money matters

UNLV will receive a payout of $1.3 million from Ohio State for Saturday’s game, quite a substantial haul for a school that has to keep one eye on its athletics budget at all times.

Though the matchup on the field is not favorable for the Rebels, Sanchez understands the business side of the schedule.

“There’s 1.3 million reasons why it’s a good deal,” he said, laughing. “It’s something you need to do and it’s just the world we live in. Any of our schools in the Mountain West, we’ve got to play these games. It’s a big financial gain for the university.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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