3 Days until FOOTBAW. I'M. SO. HAPPY.
As I think you've heard GN mention before, writing previews of teams you don't follow, especially non-con opponents from conferences you don't see on TV, is always a bit of a challenge. If you're a UNLV fan reading this, please accept my apologies upfront for any errors and please point them out in the comments. I've tried hard to proof this and have scoured the intertubes for articles and profiles (which I'll link to when appropriate to offer credit) that would give me the info I need to write a better preview but I'm sure there will still be things worthy of some constructive criticism. Gophers fans, I've tried hard to keep this from being too high level or generic but I apologize if I fail at that goal.
My very first preview for TDG happens to be the very first game of the season. I like the symmetry. For glib outsiders, this game can be distilled down to:
Inexperienced and not very good UNLV team (2-10 last season) faces B1G bottom feeder Minnesota (3-9 last season). Slapfight expected to ensue on sports channel no one gets or cares about.
Seriously, I'm sure you've read similar things. But any preview with that level of "quality" is going to be missing a lot of details. And that's what I'm going to try and provide today. The U fans on here should know what to expect from the Gophers. But what about our insurgent opponents from the Silver State? What should we actually expect from them?
Come below the jump to see my full preview of the UNLV Rebels. I'll even throw in my guaranteed to be 100% correct game prediction and a poll for free...
Just remember, as hard as it often is to be a fan of the Gophers, it is actually possible for things to be worse. And fans of UNLV last year were witnesses to that. The Rebels were 2-10, notching home victories over Hawaii and Colorado State. However, their 10 losses included a 41-16 loss to FCS Southern Utah (6-5/4th in their conference) and a loss on the road to 1-11 New Mexico. So, tough year. Especially since the team was 2-10 the year before as well.
But as any Gopher fan who is currently optimistic is fond of noting, that was last year. What does this year's UNLV team look like?
The Rebels get both of their BCS conference matchups (Minnesota and Wazzu) at home. I'm by no means a WAC or Mountain West expert, but I'm going to bet that seeing Utah State, Boise State, and San Diego State all on the road isn't a good thing for a squad trying to pick up wins wherever they can. The previews I'm reading all seem to be suggesting the same thing...a non-bowl season of 1-4 wins. I'm comfortable saying I don't think this is a bowl team.
Overall Notes - Youth:
- That youth will be noticeable early in key positions, particularly QB. Even some of the returning experience is still young. 3 of the returning O-Line starters from last season are only sophmores.
The head coach of the Rebels is Bobby Hauck. Hauck is 4-21 after 2 seasons at UNLV. He came to UNLV following a very successful stint at FCS powerhouse Montana where he went 80-17. Had I been following UNLV at the time I'd have said they made a very good hire. While things haven't clicked for Hauck's teams yet, I think it's safe to say we're not facing a team coached by a complete clown. Not sure if you've ever seen him before? Here's a video of Hauck at the MWC media days.
The Rebels will have 2 new coordinators this fall, but both were promoted from within the program. Former TE Coach Brent Myers takes over on offense while J.D. Williams will take on the DC role while still coaching the DB's.
- Hauck apparently likes an offense that is heavy on the run. According to FBT's analysis, they also run some similar blocking schemes to the Gophers out of the shotgun. Given that fact, the O-Line may be the source of some hope for them, as they return every starter. Depth may still be an issue however:
UNLV appears to be able to play eight players on the offensive line, which returns every starter.
"That's our goal is to get to eight," Hauck said. "I'd love to have 10, to be flat across two-deep, but I don't think there are that many people in the country that are there, either, at that position."
- As noted above, that is still a pretty young line. That may not be all bad for the Rebels though. It is sounding like the player to watch on the line is LT Brent Boyko. He's one of the returning starters who played extensively as a frosh last year and who earned honorable mention All-MWC for his play.
The 6-foot-7, 310-pound Boyko was a honorable mention all-Mountain West Conference selection last year and a second-team freshman All-American by the Phil Steele magazine after starting every game. He was recently named as a preseason first-team all-league selection and the conference’s best pass blocker by Lindy’s.
Boyko picked up his first college start last year at nationally ranked Wisconsin and has been a mainstay on the left side every since. While he is the most heralded member of the unit, he knows the success and failure of the line is a team effort — all five guys working together.
- What about the skill positions? QB is another good example the Rebel's youth movement. Hauck has announced that the starting QB will be RS frosh Nick Sherry, who beat out last year's starter, junior Caleb Herring. The #1 RB spot seems to be locked up by junior Tim Cornett, though who backs him up is still unclear.
- Last year's offense ran a lot of pistol. While it hasn't made much of an appearance in practice the coaching staff says they haven't scrapped it.
- From my reading, it sounds like the Rebels offense struggled badly last year (not a surprise on a 2-10 team). There is hope that this year they have the speed to stretch the field more. That speed could take a big hit if sophomore Marcus Sullivan is unable to play (as of Friday he was still out with an injury). Down field passing be a key thing to watch for the Gophers. Pass defense was not a strong point last season for the Gophers and it will be interesting to see what happens if UNLV is able to test them early.
- Defense was also not a strong point for the Rebels last year, as they gave up 40.4 points per game.
- There is a Minnesota connection to be made with the Rebels defense. Senior safety Dre Crawford was originally headed to Minnesota in the winter of 2010 but there were admissions issues. He ended up at UNLV, but also failed to qualify and spent last year on the scout team. In interviews he sounds hungry to face the Gophers and he should be a key part of the Rebels defense.
- Linebackers appear to be a position of some stability for the Rebels, as they return 3 guys who started last season.
- The D-Line is apparently deeper, though I don't have a sense for what kind of talent that front 4 possesses. It sounds like they'll be young here too, with sophs Jordan Sparkman and Desmond Tautofi sounding like they'll be a big part of the D-Line.
- The CB to keep an eye on is Sidney Hodge. He's apparently had a good camp.
- The word you read a lot in the camp reports for the Rebels defense is aggressive. It is clear they hope to get more pressure out of their defensive front. I wonder if that sounds familiar to anyone? One major difference from the Gophers? This coaching staff apparently does not care for blitzing.
- The Rebels hope they will have the best special teams in the MWC this season. I didn't have time to look at how their returning specialists compare to the rest of the MWC so we'll just have to take them at their word. They return their starters for all 3 phases. Nolan Kohorst is their kicker. He was 9-14 on FB last season and hit all 24 of his PATs. Their punter is senior Chase Lansford, who averaged 41.2 yards per punt last season. The return man is Marcus Sullivan, who average 27.9 yards per return in 2011. However, there are concerns he might not be able to play in the MN game (injury).
How Do The Gophers Stack Up?
- UNLV Offense vs. Gophers Defense: On paper the Gophers match up well IMO. If he's playing to his potential, Ra'Shede Hageman should be extremely disruptive against the smaller, often undersized O-Line. If that happens it should open up options for the rest of the defense. I'm not sure how much of the "stretch the field" talk from the Rebels is legit (especially if Marcus Sullivan doesn't play) but it's worth watching given the Gophers' previous struggles. Ideally, the Gophers find a way to confuse Sherry, the Rebels young QB. It's his first ever start and if they can get him off his game that would be huge.
- Gophers Offense vs. UNLV Defense: Honestly? I have no idea. I got a much better sense of the Rebels offense from the stuff I read. You'd have to think that on paper we'd win this matchup as well. Our O-Line is much bigger than their D-Line and Gray has been playing with poise and confidence in practice. My thought is that if the RB's can get going early to open up the passing game then Q will have good success against the Rebels' secondary. A key matchup may be how the UNLV linebackers handle MarQueis since I think it's safe to say that he'll get to the second level multiple times.
Summary? I think we win. How well the Gophers execute (especially on defense) will determine the margin. If the D struggles to handle UNLV early and takes a long time to adjust then I think this might be closer a la the Miami (Ohio) game last year. If the D proves to be tougher in their first test then I could see this being more of a 2 TD plus type win.
Prediction? I'm going to go full optimist this week and predict 31-17 Gophers.
What do you think? Let me know what you think I missed and how you think the game will turn out.