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Sanchez expects Arkansas State to test Rebels’ elite running game

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Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau

UNLV Rebels running back Lexington Thomas (3) is lifted up after scoring against the UTEP Miners during their NCAA football game Saturday, September 8, 2018, at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas.

At the quarter point in the 2018 season, UNLV currently finds itself ranked as the No. 2 rushing offense in the country with an average of 345.3 yards per game. And that’s why the Rebels will have a chance to go on the road and win a big non-conference game at Arkansas State on Saturday.

It’s a matchup that could represent a pivot point for UNLV (2-1). After dispatching UTEP and Prairie View A&M the last two weeks, the Rebels are on track to qualify for a bowl berth. A win at Arkansas State would put them well ahead of pace, while a loss would leave them to scratch for four wins in conference play.

Arkansas State will likely be favored by at least a touchdown, but the good news for UNLV is that the ground game tends to travel well, and the Rebels are confident in their ability to move the ball the old-fashioned way. Head coach Tony Sanchez said on Monday that when he took over the program four years ago, the coaching staff had to use “smoke and mirrors” in order to match up with quality opponents. But this UNLV squad has enough talent to match strength vs. strength against Arkansas State.

“We’ve been a good run football team,” Sanchez said. “We’ve run the ball well the last couple weeks. We’re going to go on the road, play a very physical defense. Can we kind of impose our will a little bit and be able to run the football? Now to do that we’ve got to be functional in the passing game and we need a higher completion percentage and make some big plays in the passing game, but I want to see us be physical enough to be able to go on the road and run the ball against a good football team.”

The Rebels are on pace to produce two 1,000-yard rushers this season, with senior running back Lexington Thomas (383 yards) and sophomore quarterback Armani Rogers (307 yards) both capable of eating up yardage. They combined for 242 yards and five touchdowns against Prairie View, but Arkansas State presents a much more difficult challenge

Aside from an outlier performance in Week 1 against juggernaut Alabama (44 carries, 278 yards), the Red Wolves have allowed just 144.5 rushing yards in their two victories. The defensive line is big and physical, and the linebackers excel at attacking running lanes. For the season, Arkansas State has 16 tackles for loss (not including sacks).

“Tough opponent,” Sanchez said. “Arkansas State is a heck of a team … They’re very physical up front. They’ll run around. They’re a running, hitting football team. We’re going to have to do a good job of establishing our running game to set up the passing game.”

Prairie View used a conservative game plan to limit UNLV’s running game in Week 3, lining up with six men in the box and playing the linebackers off the line of scrimmage. That allowed the defense to hold Thomas to a long rush of 15 yards (while ceding consistently productive short gains). UNLV countered by staying patient and riding Thomas for a career-high 30 carries, and Rogers was able to consistently break contain on quarterback sweeps.

Sanchez said he expects Arkansas State to defend more aggressively, using their size and athleticism to press the line of scrimmage on handoffs.

“Just watching these guys on film, I think they are pretty confident in their physicality and their safety play, being able to insert themselves into the box,” Sanchez said. “I don’t think you’re going to see a loose box. I think they’re going to step up and make Armani have to complete balls. They’re going to be stingy against the run.”

UNLV will have some shuffling to do along the offensive line leading up to the game, as starting center Sid Acosta is set to return from injury while left guard Jaron Caldwell is expected to miss the game with a knee injury. Sanchez said junior Julio Garcia will start in Caldwell’s place.

Sanchez said he doesn’t expect a lot of lot of trickery from either side on Saturday — just two teams pitting their strengths against each other.

“They’re going to do what they do,” Sanchez said. “They’re not going to do a ton of adjusting based on who we are. They’re pretty confident they can line up and play. I think we’ll see a 7-man front for the most part against those guys, depending on the formations we give them. But they’re a confident group, they’re a physical group, and they’ll run and hit. There’s no doubt about it. It’ll be a pretty good matchup.”

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

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