Central Michigan football will try its luck against UNLV on Saturday

Central Michigan looks to strike gold with Cooper Rush and company versus UNLV.

Let’s just take a second to collect our breath from this long season so far.

Wait a minute, it’s only game No. 3?

To date, Central Michigan has lost its original starting backfield (Cody Kater and Zurlon Tipton) to injury, lost by 50 points, played three quarterbacks and won a game on a last second field goal.

Yet the storyline continues to gather new layers as Central Michigan travels to Las Vegas, Nev. on Saturday. Cooper Rush has been named the official starter against the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. This marks Rush’s first collegiate start coming off the heels of a comeback victory over New Hampshire, 24-21 on Sept. 7.

Alex Niznak started the game against New Hampshire, going two-for-five with seven yards and an interception. Central Michigan found themselves stuck in reverse, heading into halftime trailing 13-0 in the home opener against an FCS team.

Central Michigan was about to start its fourth drive of the game and so far had accumulated zero points, zero first downs, 16 total yards and a turnover. Head coach Dan Enos then made a gutsy decision to make a change at quarterback.

Rush came in and got the ball moving in the right direction to end the first half but still there were no points on the board for the Chippewas at halftime.  The next 30 minutes that followed are what made Rush a common conversation starter in Mount Pleasant over the past week.

The redshirt freshman threw a 97-yard touchdown pass to Titus Davis to tie the game up at 21 with under 10 minutes to go. Then he led his team on a game-winning drive that included a 17-yard pass on 3rd-and-15, to give Ron Coluzzi the chance to hit his clinching 27-yard field goal as time expired. Rush finished the game completing 19 of 32 passes with 326 yards and three touchdowns.

UNLV sits at 0-2 on the season but the 2,004 miles Central has to travel presents a foreign obstacle for many of the team’s players, as 67 players are from the state of Michigan. The Runnin’ Rebels have been outscored on the season 109-36, in two losses against Minnesota and Arizona. In the two losses UNLV has given up 618 yards rushing, two special teams touchdowns and three interceptions returned for touchdowns.

There is at least one positive note from UNLV’s season at this point—their defense has only allowed just 180 yards passing on the season.

To put things into perspective, Central Michigan needs to once again play to its strengths. Saylor Lavallii has been a more than serviceable running back since taking over for the injured Tipton. The Chippewas are built to run the ball and UNLV is very prone at this point in the season to giving up plenty of rushing yards. Rush was impressive against New Hampshire but one fact remains; he is still a redshirt freshman who has zero career starts. If Lavallii can get behind the big maulers on the offensive line, he could have a very big day on the west coast.

From all of the aforementioned information, here are three keys that will play a major part in leading Central Michigan to victory.

No. 1 – Go for a home run early.

UNLV has been playing from behind all season long and their track record speaks for itself when it comes to trailing. The Runnin’ Rebels are built to run the ball, senior running back Tim Cornett ran for over 1,200 yards last season and only needs 700 yards to become the school’s all-time leading rusher.

If Central Michigan can get an early lead, it will force UNLV to pass the ball more than desired. UNLV has thrown the same amount of touchdowns to defenders as they have their own players (three).

Let Lavallii open up the play-action offense for Rush, it certainly has big-play potential. See the 97-yard touchdown pass to Davis.

No. 2 – Don’t throw Cooper Rush to the wolves 

Rush more than proved himself to be deserving of his first career start but that doesn’t mean he needs to throw the ball 30-plus times again. UNLV plays in a very talented Mountain West Conference and has seen many a talented quarterback get under center.

The Rebels have been very prone to shooting themselves in the foot this season, whether turning the ball over or giving up special teams touchdowns. Central Michigan needs to control the ball, keep the score down and let UNLV give the Chippewas some scoring opportunities.

No. 3 – Keep the focus on the game

To call Las Vegas a city with some distractions would be the world’s biggest understatement. Coaches will never pay more attention to players outside of practice and/or team sanctioned activities than they will this weekend.

There’s no doubt the team is focused on nothing but getting a win, but these are 18-24-year olds and it’s Las Vegas.

Things happen.

If one player makes a mistake before the game, it affects the whole team’s attention level. This trip will be a great test to this team’s physical and mental toughness.

The game is scheduled for a 10:06 p.m. ET kickoff and can be watched for free on the Mountain West Network via CampusInsiders.com

Photo by Brittni Hengesbach