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Rebels not overlooking FCS Idaho State

If UNLV fans have learned anything in recent years, it’s not to sleep on a Football Championship Subdivision team.

And there are some eye-opening reasons to pay attention to this weekend’s opponent, Idaho State.

The Bengals return a good chunk of a team that went 8-4 last season, including nine starters from an offense that averaged 40.3 points per game. Overall, 11 players return who received some sort of All-Big Sky Conference recognition in 2014.

UNLV (0-3) plays the Bengals (1-2) at 6 p.m. Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium. The game will be streamed online at unlvrebels.com.

“They’re a good team, they’re an improving team,” UNLV coach Tony Sanchez said. “We’re not overlooking them at all. We’re extremely focused. In the past, these are the teams they’ve let hang around. These are teams they’ve let beat them. We can’t let that happen.”

Idaho State represents a new section in the Rebels’ schedule. UNLV opened with the brutal stretch at Northern Illinois, against UCLA and at Michigan, and the fact the Rebels went 0-3 was a surprise to just about no one outside UNLV’s locker room.

Now expectations are higher, beginning with this game, but that doesn’t mean it will be easy. UNLV’s recent history against FCS teams is not favorable, with losses in recent years to Southern Utah and Northern Arizona and near-defeat in a a 13-12 victory last season over Northern Colorado.

FCS schools view a game against a higher-level team as an opportunity to make an emphatic statement, and Idaho State no doubt is viewing this matchup that way. The Bengals also are looking for a way to jump-start their season after losing 34-14 to Portland State and 52-0 at Boise State.

The Bengals are still trying to piece together a passing game after losing quarterback Justin Arias, who as a senior last season was a finalist for the Walter Payton Award, which goes to the nation’s top offensive FCS player.

Michael Sanders, who was UNLV quarterback Blake Decker’s backup two years ago at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College, has replaced Arias. Sanders has completed 56.6 percent of his passes for 624 yards and seven touchdowns, with three interceptions.

But neither Sanders nor the run game have been helped by an offensive line beset by injuries. Xavier Finney rushed for 1,495 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, but has 186 yards and a TD through the first three games this year.

Idaho State’s defense, which returns four starters, opened the season by shutting out Division II Black Hills State, but has surrendered a combined 86 points in the past two games.

UNLV will try to become the next team to reach the end zone multiple times against the Bengals, but the Rebels aren’t making any assumptions, either.

“Really, the focus is on ourselves,” Sanchez said. “It is every week. Obviously, you’re preparing for your opponent, but your focus is on yourself. It’s on you getting better.”

* NOTES — The Rebels get back two key players this week. Defensive end Jeremiah Valoaga is back from a foot injury, and right guard Nick Gstrein returns after serving a three-game academic suspension. Gstrein is listed as a co-starter with Chris Lopez. … Linebacker Matt Lea will undergo knee surgery on Thursday, and his status will be the determined after that procedure.

Contact Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65

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Las Vegas handicapper Bruce Marshall is an analyst at VegasInsider.com. He provides the Review-Journal with college football tech notes and trends.