One week after playing a team they had never met before, No. 10 Ohio State University Buckeyes return to Ohio Stadium to play another team they have never battled before. For the first time, the UNLV Rebels will journey to Columbus looking for arguably their biggest win in program history. While I might not bet (Vegas pun!) on the visitors we will nevertheless take a look ahead at Saturday’s matchup.
The University of Nevada – Las Vegas first fielded a football team in 1968. The Rebels played in Division II for a decade before becoming a Division I Independent in 1978. After dalliances with the Big West and WAC, the Rebels found a home in the Mountain West Conference in 1998. The Rebs have struggled more often than not in their history with one conference title (Big West) in 1984. That season they defeated Toledo in the California Bowl, but the win was later vacated due to NCAA violations. The Rebels have not appeared in a bowl game since the 2014 Heart of Dallas Bowl, a loss to North Texas.
After winning two, three, and four games respectively over the past three seasons, the Rebels appear to be regressing in 2017. UNLV opened their season at home against FCS Howard. Despite entering the game as 45 point underdogs, the Bison recorded a 43-40 victory setting a new record for largest upset in college football history. UNLV bounced back with a 44-16 victory over the Idaho Vandals, but considering that this is Idaho’s final year in FBS before it voluntarily retreats to the FCS in 2018 the win is not all that impressive.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Armani Rogers slings the pigskin for the Rebels. He has completed 21-of-35 passing for 413 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick. He has also shown mobility, rushing for 168 yards and a touchdown in two games. The primary tailback is Lexington Thomas, a 5’9” junior from Houston, he has gained 341 yards and scored five touchdowns on the young season. The defense has forced two turnovers in 2017, an interception each for senior DB Chauncey Scissum and sophomore LB Gabe McCoy.
Ohio State’s domination of Army should quell some of the fears that Oklahoma agitated. The Bucks owned the game stem to stern, perhaps none more so than JT Barrett. The redshirt senior showed polish and poise in the Horseshoe. On the year he has thrown 64-for-103 with 757 yards, five touchdowns, and a pick. Toward the end of the game, future starter Dwayne Haskins took a few snaps and finished 4-for-4 with 46 yards. Head Coach Urban Meyer has historically been deliberate about when to play underclassmen in blowouts, but I am in favor of letting the kids get some dirt under their nails in these early season routs. There is no doubt that Cardale Jones benefitted from a handful of cameos early in 2014. When his number was called for the postseason he could fall back on that experience to help him stay calm in the big moment. If Ohio State gets ahead comfortably against UNLV don’t be surprised to see a few more youngsters play in the fourth quarter.
One of the storylines I’ll be tracking throughout the season concerns special teams. No doubt we all remember how kicker Tyler Durbin struggled late last season. He missed critical field goals against Michigan and Clemson, and now that he has graduated the kicking duties boomerang back on Sean Nuernberger. The junior is 6-for-6 on the season connecting on one field goal from the 1-19 yard range, three from 20-29, and two from 30-39. It’s somewhat unusual that his long on the season is a pedestrian 33 yards. Considering how aggressive Meyer tends to play in the red zone and on fourth down this is not too surprising, but I’d like to see the kicker get some more looks from deep, especially is OSU is already up in the game. Connecting on a few early season boots may help lay a stronger foundation so a chilly kick in Ann Arbor feels much less intimidating.
We have entered the yawn inducing stretch of the Ohio State season. UNLV does not pose a serious threat at an upset (at least on paper they don’t). Next week Big Ten play technically begins, but Ohio State opens with a road trip to Rutgers so it still feels a little like a non-conference game. Still, as the cliché goes, we play the season one game at a time. Ohio State should be able to quickly handle their business on Saturday and give the underclassmen some looks in the second half. The Buckeyes will send the Rebels running all the way back to Nevada.