FACTS & STATS: Site: Sam Boyd Stadium (36,800) -- Las Vegas, Nevada. Television: CBSSN. Home Record: Minnesota 0-0, UNLV 0-0. Away Record: Minnesota 0-0, UNLV 0-0. Neutral Record: Minnesota 0-0, UNLV 0-0. Conference Record: Minnesota 0-0, UNLV 0-0. Series Record: First-ever meeting.
GAME NOTES: A first-ever meeting between a couple of schools on the football field sets the wheels in motion for their respective 2012 schedules, as the UNLV Rebels entertain the Minnesota Golden Gophers at Sam Boyd Stadium on Thursday night.
The only major conference program to kick off four straight seasons on the road, Minnesota hopes to build on the 27-7 win that closed out the 2011 campaign which overall, was rather disappointing for head coach Jerry Kill. The head coach at Northern Illinois for three years where he led the Huskies to three straight postseason appearances before joining Minnesota, Kill had a hard time getting his team in gear in 2011 as the team turned in a 3-9 performance and was just 2-6 versus the rest of the Big Ten Conference.
Kill, who signed a seven-year deal with Minnesota in late October after starting out just 1-6, also had to deal with his own medical concerns last year because of seizures.
As for the Rebels, they are beginning their third straight campaign against a member of the Big Ten after back-to-back bouts with Wisconsin the previous two seasons. An even 22-22 in season openers all-time, UNLV has produced a mark of 17-7 when kicking off the year at home.
In 2011, his second season with the Rebels after coming over from Montana, head coach Bobby Hauck managed to get his team just two wins, both at home. The first was a surprising 40-20 victory against Hawaii and the other a narrow 38-35 triumph versus Colorado State. In only one other game did the Rebels, who finished 2-10 overall and just 1-6 versus the rest of the Mountain West Conference, score at least 21 points as they ranked 113th in the nation in overall scored with a mere 17.3 ppg.
Despite his team's woes, Hauck actually signed a contract extension early in the 2011 season, but still the Rebels are tied for the 10th longest losing streak entering the new campaign at five in a row.
Now a senior with the Gophers, MarQueis Gray is the player that the team will build itself around again this year. As a passing quarterback Gray still leaves a lot to be desired, having averaged just 135.9 ypg through the air a year ago, but on the ground he is a different player. Gray returns as the leading rusher for the program a year ago when he ran for 966 yards and scored six times, giving him two fewer TDs than he threw over the course of 11 outings.
Unfortunately, until Gray gets some receivers to establish themselves as threats down the field he'll still be the one that does most of the work on offense. Brandon Green is the top returner in terms of receiving yards with just 190, while tight end John Rabe's two TDs are the most receiving by anyone coming back as well.
From a defensive perspective, the Golden Gophers have to become more active when it comes to forcing turnovers. The unit ranked last in the Big Ten and 100th in the nation overall in turnover margin (minus-0.67 per game) because the defense forced just 9 turnovers in 12 games.
Losing their top two tacklers from a year ago, Kim Royston and Gary Tinsley who registered 123 and 87 stops, respectively, won't be easy to recover from, but Minnesota doesn't have any choice and has to find someone who is willing to become a significant contributor, particularly when the conference schedule begins.
The offense for the Rebels was brutal last season, particularly in the passing attack as the team ranked last in the MWC and 118th in the country with a mere 109.6 ypg as Caleb Herring took the majority of the snaps. This year Hauck is moving in a new direction and has a redshirt rookie handling the quarterback duties as Nick Sherry lines up under center. Sherry, the eighth different starting QB for the team in the last nine years, is set to become just the third freshman to start for the program.
Having Tim Cornett lining up in the backfield should give Sherry some comfort since the running back has proven he has a nose for the end zone, but what the signal-caller really needs is threats who can stretch the field and they have yet to present themselves.
The defense is also in rebuilding mode for the Rebels as one of the most aggressive performers (James Dunlap, 14.5 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks) is no longer on the roster. However, Sidney Hodge is one of the top defensive backs in the MWC after posting 4 interceptions and 8 pass breakups a year ago, not to mention 53 total tackles which ranked him sixth on the unit.
Both of these programs are in dire need of a positive start to the season, even if the rest of the schedule doesn't work in their favor. Considering the Rebels are going with a fresh face at quarterback, the pressure just might be a bit too great for Sherry under the bright lights.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Minnesota 27, UNLV 14Game Date and Time
Thursday, August 30, 11:00 p.m. (et).