Friday, Sept. 3, 2010 | 2:15 a.m.
UNLV vs. No. 12 Wisconsin
UNLV Rebels (0-0) vs. Wisconsin Badgers (0-0)
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium
When: 8 p.m.
Coaches: Bobby Hauck is in his first season at UNLV and 80-17 in seven overall seasons; Bret Bielema is 38-14 in his four seasons at Wisconsin, which is his first head coaching job.
Series: Wisconsin leads, 6-2
Last time: Wisconsin won, 20-13, on Sept. 8, 2007, in Las Vegas.
Line: Wisconsin by 20.5
TV/Radio: Versus/ESPN Radio 1100-AM
Rebel to watch: All eyes will be on junior quarterback Mike Clausen, who unseated two-year starter and close friend Omar Clayton and will open the season leading the UNLV offense. Clausen started once last year, but played in all 12 games, completing 52 of 88 pass attempts for 463 yards, four touchdowns and two picks. More impressive, though, was that he was the Rebels' second-leading rusher, with 288 yards and seven touchdowns on 69 attempts. He's a well-built 6-foot-2, 220-pounder whose ability to run the ball and keep the chains — and clock — moving could give UNLV at least a fighting chance against a Big Ten powerhouse.
Badger to watch: Junior running back John Clay was last year's Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, and he's a likely favorite to repeat. Against what was a porous run defense a year ago, Clay will be looking for big numbers behind a veteran offensive line. That line helped him pile up 1,517 yards and 18 TDs in 2009, averaging a more-than-strong 5.3 yards per carry.
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Ryan Greene and Ray Brewer end a brief hiatus from the Rebel Room to not only discuss the ongoing movement both in and out by Mountain West Conference members, but also take a look at this weekend's UNLV football opener against No. 12 Wisconsin at Sam Boyd Stadium.
From the first day Bobby Hauck was on the job as UNLV's new head football coach back in December, it was no secret that the schedule he faced in his inaugural season in Las Vegas would be murderous.
Now, after months of talking about how rough the terrain looks, it's now time to explore it.
First up on the 13-game docket that includes nine teams that played in bowl games a year ago is No. 12 Wisconsin. The Badgers are a top-tier team in the strong Big Ten Conference, and plenty of the buzz surrounding them heading into 2010 stems from a 20-14 victory over Miami in last year's Champs Sports Bowl — a game which was not as close as the score indicates.
Experienced and big, the Badgers hope to avoid an early non-conference pitfall at Sam Boyd Stadium, where they narrowly escaped the Rebels in a 20-13 victory on Sept. 8, 2007.
As for UNLV, it's all about setting a strong tone to kick off the Hauck era.
With the game finally upon us, here's a look at what will matter most come Saturday's 8 p.m. kickoff.
1) How improved will you be, really?
No area needs improving more for UNLV than the run defense. The numbers tell the story. The Rebels, last season, ranked 112th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision programs in the category, succumbing 220.58 yards per game the old-fashioned way.
With a new defensive scheme under coordinator Kraig Paulson, it truly looks as if the Rebels will be more aggressive and attack-minded, taking more chances when trying to cut drives short.
There is no bigger challenge to start off with than what Wisconsin brings to the table, with an offense headlined by junior running back John Clay. Clay is the reigning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, having totaled 1,517 yards and 18 touchdowns on 287 totes in 2009. If it's any consolation, the Badgers' second- and third-leading rushers from a year ago — sophomore Montee Ball and senior Zach Brown — are also back. That duo combined for 670 yards and seven rushing scores last season.
Clay, who underwent surgery on both ankles this offseason, probably won't see the same workload he did during games a year ago as he's easing back into form, but there's a whole stable of players behind him ready to fill in the holes.
Combine them with an experienced offensive line and an efficient, veteran quarterback Scott Tolzien, and it's pretty clear what Wisconsin intends to do.
UNLV's best chance for survival as a nearly three-touchdown underdog is to keep Clay & Co. from moving the first down markers. Last year, the Badgers averaged 10.5 rushing first downs a game, while UNLV gave up 120 of them in 12 games.
With that said, the three most important guys on the field for UNLV might be senior tackles Isaako Aaitui and Ramsey Feagai and senior middle linebacker Ronnie Paulo.
Aaitui, a legitimate NFL prospect at 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds, emerged in fall camp as the leader of the UNLV defense up front, and needs to be a common visitor in Wisconsin's backfield. As for Paulo, he's been one of UNLV's best tacklers over the past two seasons when healthy, which he is to start the season.
Whether the run defense is improved might not be known completely judging by just one game, but it will give a pretty decent indication.
2) It's Clausen's turn
Over the past two seasons, there has been no hesitation in giving Mike Clausen the reins to the UNLV offense, be it for a series or two a game or in a spot start when Omar Clayton went down to injury.
Now, he's taking the lead and getting a chance to establish himself as the Rebels' starter for good.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior made up big-time ground late in training camp in the race to earn the start against Wisconsin, and Hauck even admitted that it truly came down to the wire.
Despite Clayton putting up strong numbers in the shotgun spread offense over the past two seasons, Clausen might be the more logical fit in what is described as a ball-control offense.
The Rebels will look to keep the clock moving primarily by utilizing the ground game, and Clausen a year ago was the team's second-leading rusher, totaling 288 yards on 69 attempts, scoring seven times. He's well-built and durable, and he has looked good running the ball in Hauck's offense so far in camp.
The biggest thing for Clausen, though, is just not making mistakes. He was 52-of-88 passing the ball in 2009, with 463 yards, four TDs and two picks. He won't have to take as many downfield chances in the new offense, and his strong arm will fit the short-passing game well. For as tough as it will be to keep Wisconsin's offense off of the field, giving the Badgers extra possessions only makes the waters choppier.
3) Home field advantage?
Well, the stands will be packed with red. We know that much.
In previous trips to Sam Boyd Stadium, the well-traveled Wisconsin faithful have essentially made it a home game away from home.
However, a tough economy, combined with inflated hotel and airfare rates for the holiday weekend, have kept the Badger fans from scooping up as many tickets for the UNLV game as they have in the past.
As it stands right now, roughly 30,000 tickets have been sold for the game, and Sam Boyd holds roughly 36,000. Who will have the edge in the stands? Despite back-to-back 5-7 seasons, interest among the Rebels fan base appears to have spiked a bit out of intrigue with Hauck now at the helm.
No matter who has more fans, though, the edge in this department might go to UNLV by default. Why? The weather.
Forecasts have temperatures peaking at 107 degrees on Saturday. Yes, the game will kick off right at sundown, but temperatures will most likely still be in the triple digits. UNLV has practiced in the ridiculously dry desert heat for a good portion of fall camp. Wisconsin has not. What kind of effect will that have on the Badgers in, say, the fourth quarter?
4) Playmakers, please stand up
Wisconsin returns six starters from a unit that ranked 17th in the FBS last season in total defense (305.69 yards per game). The Badgers have a strong history of simply reloading, too, on that side of the ball.
To crack the force field, UNLV will need the immediate emergence of some fresh playmakers.
At the skill positions, junior receiver Phillip Payne obviously leads the charge for UNLV. In two seasons as a Rebel, the Las Vegas native has totaled 1,097 yards on 87 catches and, most impressive, 14 touchdowns in just 21 career games.
But with record-holder Ryan Wolfe now gone, Payne has the added pressure of performing as a No. 1 receiver.
Some help around him wouldn't hurt.
After being UNLV's strongest position for a few years, the Rebels need some young receivers to step up. Behind Payne and fellow junior Michael Johnson, a likely candidate to emerge is freshman Marcus Sullivan.
The Cheyenne High grad grayshirted a year ago for academic reasons but is possibly the Rebels' fastest offensive threat. Should he get the ball in space, he's going to spread a defense out quickly.
5) Intangibles, intangibles
Do they matter? Well, we'll see, but there are a few worth mentioning.
Outside of the weather, the other oddity UNLV has going for it is a lack of true game film for Wisconsin to study up on. The Badgers' staff had to bone up on twice as much as the UNLV coaches did, needing to take in film of Hauck's Montana teams to get a feel for their style, but also UNLV's film from a year ago for a sense of the Rebels' personnel.
The idea of a team playing a little bit over its head in its first game under a new coach is intriguing, but in the recent past, it's been hard to derail Wisconsin early in the schedule.
Despite a few close calls — including the UNLV game in 2007 — Wisconsin seems to find a way, having won its last 12 season openers.