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Which UNLV defense will show up against San Diego State?

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Gary Kazanjian / AP

UNLV linebacker Jacoby Windmon tries to tackle Fresno State running back Ronnie Rivers, who scores a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Fresno, Calif., Friday, Oct. 18, 2019.

The UNLV football team is capable of playing good defense, Tony Sanchez is sure of it. He’s seen it just often enough this season to know it’s not a mirage.

Whether it was holding Vanderbilt to 10 points, limiting Boise State to 2-of-13 on third downs or, most recently, forcing 3-and-outs on Fresno State’s first two possessions on Friday, the Rebels have flashed the ability to hinder opposing offenses. The problem is consistency — in between those intermittent flashes, the UNLV defense has been flat-out bad.

For the season, UNLV opponents are averaging 6.8 yards per play, which ranks the Rebels a lowly 125th in the country. The only teams worse are Connecticut (6.9), Southern Mississippi (6.9), Houston (6.9), Bowling Green (7.1) and UMass (7.6). In terms of points allowed, UNLV is 119th at 38.3 points per game.

On Friday, the defense offered little resistance as Fresno State put up 59 points despite missing three field goals.

How can the same unit go from dominating an SEC opponent one week to getting trampled by a middling Fresno State team six days later?

Sanchez believes his players are talented enough that it’s not a physical issue.

“There are just mental mistakes that can’t happen,” Sanchez said. “They hadn’t shown up in the last couple weeks defensively. We played pretty solid for most of the game against Boise, played solid against Vanderbilt. Too many mistakes last week and it’s got to be corrected and it’s got to be fixed.”

Against Fresno State, Sanchez pointed to one play in which a Rebels cornerback failed to stick with receiver Jalen Cropper as he took a jet-sweep handoff and ran 82 yards down to the goal line. Sanchez also said his linebackers were undisciplined and failed to contain the quarterback on read-option plays, allowing Fresno QB Jorge Reyna to run for 47 yards on four carries.

Sanchez has to hope UNLV can repair those breakdowns in advance of Saturday’s home game against San Diego State. The Rebels are 2-5 on the season, and one more loss will leave the team with zero margin for error when it comes to bowl eligibility; lose to SDSU this week and UNLV will have to win its final four games to qualify for postseason play.

On paper, the Aztecs are not a bad matchup for the good version of the UNLV defense. Under head coach Rocky Long, the San Diego State offense features a physical, straight-ahead rushing attack. So far this season, SDSU has run the ball on 60.6 percent of its offensive plays, the 19th-highest rate in the country; but those runs have yielded just 3.5 yards per attempt, which ranks 108th.

If San Diego State stays conservative and pounds it up the gut on Saturday, that’s something Sanchez feels his team can handle.

“I think we can,” Sanchez said when asked if the Rebels can match San Diego State’s physicality. “Box-wise, I think we’re in a good spot … We did good against inside-the-tackle runs [against Fresno State] and we’re going to have to do so this week. I like our linebacking corps, I like the front.

“I think we’ll match up good against the run,” he continued.

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

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