A reporter asked UNLV coach Tony Sanchez early in the week if Saturday’s game at Arkansas State was make or break.
To have a realistic run at their first bowl in five years, the Rebels needed to go at least 2-2 in nonconference play, and they will do that no matter what happens in the 4 p.m. game in Jonesboro, Arkansas.
But should the Rebels (2-1) upset Arkansas State (2-1), a 7½-point favorite, they take a major step toward bowl eligibility and send a signal they are a Mountain West contender.
“That will be a big win for us if we get this win,” UNLV quarterback Armani Rogers said. “It would boost everybody’s confidence. Three games away from a bowl game. Just keep moving forward from there.”
Rain and cool temperatures are forecast for the game, which will be streamed on ESPN3. The high will drop 22 degrees overnight to 66 on game day, which eliminates the element of what can be crippling Southern humidity this time of year being a factor against UNLV. And because UNLV will need to again be successful on the ground while the Red Wolves are the better passing team, a wet field also should work to the Rebels’ advantage.
UNLV averages 345.3 yards rushing per game, third nationally behind triple-option teams Georgia Tech (392.7) and Navy (358.0). Rogers and running back Lexington Thomas average a combined 230 yards, and a deep group of backs from Charles Williams to Xzaviar Campbell to Evan Owens do more than simply provide support.
They face an Arkansas State defense that gives up 189 yards rushing per game and 4.8 per carry, so there are opportunities for the Rebels to put up numbers and, more important, control the tempo.
UNLV will need to do just that to offset Red Wolves quarterback Justice Hansen, who passes for 251.3 yards per game. Arkansas State uses a quick passing game and spreads it out to a wide array of receivers, a system that could negate some problems with the weather.
“(Hansen) is probably the most accomplished guy on our entire schedule, even including SC,” said Sanchez, referring to Southern California’s JT Daniels. “Can we do a good job of pressuring him? Can we do a good job of making him come off his mark?”
The Rebels are putting more pressure on quarterbacks, registering eight sacks — they had 11 last season. UNLV allows 214.3 yards passing per game, but opposing quarterbacks are completing just 42.2 percent.
After this game, UNLV will have its bye week, then go into Mountain West play Oct. 6 against New Mexico at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Momentum is difficult to define, but a victory could give the Rebels some as they close nonconference play.
Playing Arkansas State is not a “break” game, but it is a potential “make” one.
“Especially going and winning on the road, that would help big time,” UNLV defensive end Roger Mann said. “That would add a lot of steam going ahead for us.”
Who: UNLV at Arkansas State
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Centennial Bank Stadium, Jonesboro, Ark.
Line: Arkansas State -7½; total 67
TV: ESPN3 (online stream)
Radio: KWWN (1100 AM, 100.9 FM)