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UNLV tries to steal magic from Central Michigan

MOUNT PLEASANT, Mich. — UNLV’s long-suffering football team has consistently shown resiliency under coach Tony Sanchez, either leading or trailing by a touchdown or less in the fourth quarter of 11 of the 14 games he’s coached.

Coming off a 42-21 loss at UCLA in which UNLV trailed 28-21 after three quarters, Sanchez expects his team to again be in it to win it down the stretch Saturday at Central Michigan.

“I think we match up better on paper, but the game’s not played on paper. That’s why we had the opportunity to win in the fourth quarter against UCLA,” Sanchez said. “I think we have a great opportunity, but it’s not going to be an easy one. We fully expect as a group to be going deep into the fourth quarter with another of those seven-point games, and we’ve got to learn to flip the switch.”

The resilient Chippewas flipped the switch in a controversial 30-27 upset of then-No. 22 Oklahoma State on Sept. 10, pulling off an incredible game-winning 51-yard touchdown with no time remaining on a Hail Mary-and-lateral play. The win was controversial because the officials shouldn’t have awarded Central Michigan the untimed down after penalizing the Cowboys for intentional grounding on the previous play as time expired.

“It’s an unfortunate situation for Oklahoma State, but you can’t take away from the way Central Michigan played,” Sanchez said “They were right there in the game.”

UNLV (1-1), which never has won in the Eastern time zone (0-10) and has lost 17 straight nonconference road games, could do a lot worse than modeling itself after Central Michigan and fellow Mid-American Conference team Northern Illinois, which beat the Rebels 38-30 last season.

“Those MAC schools traditionally always do a really good job of building programs and knocking off big opponents and winning games,” Sanchez said. “They’re just consistent, and that’s the biggest thing we’re trying to build in this program right now, just being consistent competitors.

“They’re a team that knows how to win, and they go to bowl games. We’re a team that’s learning how to win and fighting to get into the first bowl game in a while.”

The Chippewas (2-0), who return 16 starters, received four votes in The Associated Press Top 25 poll this week after their first win over a ranked opponent in 25 years. Central Michigan senior quarterback Cooper Rush (361 yards, four touchdowns vs. Oklahoma State) said he doesn’t expect the team to suffer a letdown against UNLV.

“We try to look at it as a momentum builder. We started the season strong so far, and we really want to keep it going one week at a time,” Rush said. “We have a lot of senior leadership, and we got everyone focused and had a good week of practice.”

Rush said the controversy from the Oklahoma State game is out of the team’s control.

“We talk about it all the time as a team. If we’re out there, we try to execute,” he said. “We didn’t know the rules. We were told to make plays, and fortunately we did.”

The Rebels struggled to make plays on defense in the first half against UCLA, missing tackles and failing to pressure quarterback Josh Rosen, before tightening things up in the third quarter, when they produced a sack and held the Bruins to 48 yards of total offense.

“That got us right back in the game. Now we’ve got to do it for four quarters,” Sanchez said. “We feel we’re a fairly evenly matched team. They’re big and strong, but we feel like we’ve got a little bit of a speed advantage.”

UNLV nose tackle Mike Hughes Jr. said the key for the defense is to start fast.

“That will be the biggest challenge, turning it on once the game starts,” he said. “I feel like our mindset has to be backs against the wall the whole game.”

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354. Follow on Twitter: @tdewey33

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