COLUMBUS, Ohio — Ohio State continues a stretch of games in which it will be heavily favored when UNLV comes to Ohio Stadium on Saturday.
The 10th-ranked Buckeyes (2-1) will meet the Rebels (1-1) for the first time in history (noon ET on BTN). Kickoff is 9 a.m. PT back in Las Vegas for UNLV, which will travel to Columbus on Thursday to get acclimated for the early start.
After facing UNLV, Ohio State travels to Rutgers for its Big Ten opener and then returns home to face Maryland. Not exactly a murderer’s row for the Buckeyes.
The schedule should prove to be advantageous for the Buckeyes, though, as they try to recover from the stinging loss at home to Oklahoma two weeks ago.
Last week, Ohio State began the recovery process with a 38-7 victory over Army.
The Buckeyes are still figuring out how to best utilize their talent on offense. Senior quarterback J.T. Barrett didn’t have a great game against Oklahoma but bounced back last week with an efficient performance against Army, completing 25 of 33 passes for 270 yards and two touchdowns.
“Played much better,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said. “I think the surrounding cast was much better. Obviously, Oklahoma is one of the top couple teams in America. We didn’t play as well. He didn’t play as well, but all of us did not play as well or coach as well.”
Freshman running back J.K. Dobbins continued to amaze last week with 172 yards rushing and two touchdowns on 13 carries against Army, including a 52-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. He is carrying the load while last year’s starter, Mike Weber, recovers from a lingering hamstring issue.
A gang of receivers led by K.J. Hill (eight catches vs. Army) and Parris Campbell is starting to take shape. The Buckeyes will be looking to break some big plays in the passing game this week.
The biggest question on offense involves the choice of a backup quarterback. Redshirt freshman Dwayne Haskins saw action last week as the backup against Army and completed all four of his passes, but previous No. 2 Joe Burrow has returned from a hand injury.
“So we’ve got to make some decisions who is the first one in there,” Meyer said.
With Ohio State favored by nearly 40 points over UNLV, Meyer might be tempted to experiment with some of his young talent this week, but that’s not his primary intention.
“We’re not at that point,” he said. “We’re not that experienced.
“We’ve got so many issues to fix that were exposed early in the season. And so what am I trying — we’re trying to get better and better and win games. That’s all.”
The Buckeyes should have ample opportunity to move the ball against the Rebels’ defense, which has given up 416.5 yards per game against two vastly inferior opponents.
Defensively, Meyer is looking for improvement in the secondary, which was burned by Oklahoma but untested by Army’s triple-option, run-oriented attack.
Meyer, who coaches special teams, also has some concerns about kickoffs and punt returns. Both units aren’t productive enough yet in his mind.
Asked where he’d like to see progress, Meyer said, “Pass defense and continued growth on offense. Punt team I’m very pleased with. Kickoff coverage is a mess right now.”
UNLV is coming off a bye week. The Rebels stumbled out of the gate big time with a 43-40 loss to FCS program Howard and then rebounded with a 44-16 win at Idaho.
Playing at Ohio State before 100,000-plus fans will be a daunting challenge for UNLV, which visited Michigan two years ago.
“We’re going to have to be aggressive, take some shots down the field, think outside the box a little bit to give ourselves an opportunity,” said UNLV’s Tony Sanchez, in his third year as coach after leaving national high school power Bishop Gorman in Las Vegas, and current Ohio State players Tate Martell and Haskell Garrett were on his team.
“The hardest thing about a team like this is the depth they have.”
The Rebels so far have shown a ground-oriented offense. They rank fourth nationally with 350.5 rushing yards per game. Running back Lexington Thomas leads UNLV, averaging 170.5 yards per game on the ground.
UNLV touts wide receiver Devonte Boyd as an All-American candidate. He has 170 career receptions for 2,838 yards and 17 touchdowns. Freshman quarterback Armani Rogers will make his third career start.
“You want to go there for a win, but it’s a tough task playing against a team like that,” Sanchez said. “It’s an Urban Meyer-coached team. But at the end of the day it’s still football.”