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Season goals still in play as UNLV football meets Ohio State

Updated September 22, 2017 - 3:03 pm

COLUMBUS, Ohio — I’m not sure you come to the place where they dot the “I” to find answers, or if you need to learn about a band marching across Woody Hayes Drive before thundering down a ramp and going all Script Ohio across the field to measure where your football team exists this early in a season.

I’m not sure the sight of Brutus Buckeye is going to make much of a difference for how a 40-point underdog performs, for how much UNLV can really discover about itself Saturday, even in a town named for Christopher Columbus.

Initiating the permanent European colonization of the New World is one thing, but beating an Ohio State team that already dropped a home game this season is quite another.

Those darn East Indies had nothing on Urban Meyer.

The Rebels have done a better job under Tony Sanchez as head coach in balancing out the tricky voyage that is a non-conference schedule, but with that will come an annual matchup such as this one against the No. 10 Buckeyes.

“We have to play one of them a year,” Sanchez said.

It is a standard responsibility of those from the have-nots section of college athletics, an obligation non-Power 5 programs owe their respective university coffers, especially when the return on such a trip is a cool $1.3 million.

That’s the financial reasoning behind playing Ohio State, and it makes sense for every last point allowed.

The football part for UNLV might be just as uncomplicated.

Is anything that much different now than three weeks ago?

OK, so Howard was different.

Historically so.

But in responding to the embarrassment of losing as a 45-point home favorite against a Football Championship Subdivision opponent with an inspired blowout victory at Idaho, UNLV ensured it would arrive to this home of helmets plastered with leaves and a victory bell hanging in the southeast tower of Ohio Stadium knowing a reality many expected before the season commenced.

Remember only that in the world of UNLV football, Idaho was hardly considered a pushover, given the Vandals won in Las Vegas last year and by the time kickoff came in Moscow two weeks ago, were a near-touchdown favorite.

In other words, the shock isn’t that UNLV is 1-1.

The shock is how it got there.

Blueprint hasn’t changed

I’m sure many (guilty as charged) believed the Rebels would begin the season 2-0, but when you realize the program hasn’t done so since 1999, nobody of sound mind would have wagered the mortgage on its likelihood.

Which means no matter what happens at the Horseshoe on Saturday before 100,000-plus spectators, no matter how large the margin grows or how competitive the Rebels prove on one of college football’s elite stages, they will enter Mountain West play next week with the same blueprint to chase six wins and bowl eligibility as they had before Howard.

“I think you’re always gauging where you are, and the goal is to make sure you’re ready when conference gets here,” Sanchez said. “I have a pretty good idea of who we are, what our strengths and weaknesses are, but there will always be players that step up and surprise you and do more than you might expect.

“We have a lot of guys who will continue to get better week-to-week, and if that happens, we have a chance to be a pretty good team. One of our messages to our guys is not to take the weight of the chip off their shoulders. Play with it, and it will benefit you. Keep that edge the entire time. We need to be edgy before we start conference.”

Edgy is difficult at Ohio State, but it’s true there were times when playing at UCLA and Michigan in recent years where the Rebels didn’t appear completely overwhelmed. They lost, lost big, and yet results had far more to do with a lack of depth and comparable talent than being intimidated by the setting.

Mountain West football beyond San Diego State and perhaps Boise State and Air Force appears dead-flat average or worse this season, meaning all those thoughts about UNLV making a jump and getting to six wins remain more than feasible.

Nothing has really changed, no matter what occurs in the land where they dot the “I” and have fraternity members spend most Saturdays taking turns pulling the cord of a 2,000-pound victory bell for 15 minutes following a win.

If they beat Michigan, they pull it for 30.

When it’s done ringing Saturday, the Rebels should have already switched their focus to San Jose State and the opening of league play.

We know what playing at Ohio State is about, a required injection of financial gain for a non-Power 5 athletic department.

The important stuff for UNLV football begins next week.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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