Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012 | 2 a.m.
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- Analysis: Importance of UNLV’s opener against Minnesota can’t be overstated
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- UNLV football’s staff prepares for 2012 season opener with new play-callers
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The first UNLV football game of the season won’t answer every question about the team, but it’s a lot better than just going off of practices and scrimmages for another month.
The Rebels host Minnesota on Thursday night at 8 at Sam Boyd Stadium. The game will be televised on CBS Sports Network, Cox cable channel 333.
UNLV is going out there with freshman Nick Sherry at quarterback and a lot of positions filled by underclassmen. In year three of the Bobby Hauck era, the program could go in a lot of different directions. The first game will offer many clues to that end, and here we offer a brief look at the team UNLV will line up against: the Gophers.
1. Shifty shades of Gray
Minnesota’s senior wide receiver-turned-quarterback, MarQueis Gray, is far and away the Gophers’ best weapon on either side of the field.
He played both positions, but mostly receiver, in his first two seasons before earning the starting quarterback job before the 2011 season. Last year, he missed one game because of injury; in the others, he amassed nearly 1,500 passing yards and eight touchdowns while completing just more than 50 percent of his passes.
On the ground, Gray is even more dangerous as the Gophers’ leading rusher, piling up 966 yards (87.8 per game) and six touchdowns. In the final two games, including a 27-7 victory against Illinois, he amassed 327 rushing yards and three touchdowns. For a comparison, in its final two games of 2011, UNLV rushed for a combined 355 yards as a team.
After struggling in the opener against USC, Gray was off and running for much of the season. The team that did the best job bottling him up was Wisconsin*, which held him to just 119 total yards. Badgers coach Bret Bielema said he was proud of his defense’s ability to constantly keep a defensive lineman in front of Gray to slow him down and also break up the Gophers’ trick plays.
That’s a tactic UNLV would be wise to employ, and in a game with this many unknowns — young teams, changes in play-callers, first game of the year — don’t be surprised to see some trickeration from either side Thursday night.
*Fun fact: This game was played on Nov. 12, one night after Gray’s girlfriend gave birth to twin boys. He has two sons, MarZell and MarShawn, and a daughter, Tessa.
2. Road woes
UNLV and Minnesota share a lot of similarities — no recent history to speak of, young rosters under coaches trying to rebuild the program, a penchant to run the ball. But maybe the most important trait for this game is that both teams have struggled on the road.
The Rebels haven’t won away from home since 2009, but that will be more important at the end of September when they actually hit the road for the first time in 2012. It’s more relevant right now for Minnesota, which has to travel a long way west into the desert heat to try to snap a five-game road losing streak.
Minnesota’s last road victory was a 38-34 squeaker at Illinois at the end of 2010. Before that, it had lost three in a row and seven of the last eight if you want to include the 2009 Insight Bowl.
“Anytime you take a team, certainly one as young as we have, on the road, it’s difficult,” Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said in a conference call Tuesday.
The conditions, the distractions and the unfamiliarity all play against Minnesota. However, Kill sounded optimistic about the number of Gophers fans who would make the trip to Las Vegas. And with an 8 p.m. local kickoff time and the game on CBS Sports Network, it will be interesting to see how many Rebels fans fill the Sam Boyd Stadium stands.
3. King of the return
Most coaches make a point of saying something like this throughout the season: “We’ve got to win on offense, defense AND special teams.” As UNLV’s special teams coordinator, Hauck takes that cliché more serious than most. And in that regard, he’s going to have his hands full with Minnesota’s Troy Stoudermire.
The senior defensive back/return specialist is the Big Ten’s career leader in kickoff return yards with 3,102. Stoudermire had more than 1,000 return yards in each of his first two seasons, then dipped to 789 as a junior. Last year, which was supposed to be his senior year, he got injured and missed the final eight games.
Now he starts the year just 415 yards behind the NCAA record. Special teams and turnovers often decide early-season games, especially when teams are even in most other categories. It only helps the Gophers to have a weapon like that awaiting the kick.
4. Killed in openers
Kill is entering his second season at Minnesota. There’s been a lot made recently about how all four of Kill’s previous programs — Saginaw Valley State, Emporia State, Southern Illinois and, most recently, Northern Illinois — had better records in their second year under him, which is true. And by that logic, Minnesota is hoping to improve on its 3-9 record from last year.
But based on history, it’s going to be difficult for Kill to get started on that in the first game. In the past year, he’s 0-4 in opening games, all on the road.
The streak started, coincidentally, when Kill’s Huskies lost at Minnesota in 2008. Since then, NIU lost at Wisconsin and at Iowa State while Minnesota lost last year at USC. Of those games, only Iowa State was a blowout loss. The rest were all within eight points, which at least is a good sign for Minnesota as UNLV is the weakest of all those opponents.
Still, Kill hasn’t won an opening game on the road since 2005, when Southern Illinois took down Southeast Missouri State 58-23.
5. First impressions
With young rosters and programs very much in the developmental stage, nobody is going to learn more about these teams than the coaches.
In public, Hauck has stuck to his point that Minnesota is the most important game on the schedule only because it’s the next one on the schedule. Next week it will be Northern Arizona, and so on.
Kill, though, wasn’t afraid to throw some extra weight behind Thursday’s potential outcome.
“We certainly have put a huge amount of importance into the game,” Kill said. “We need to know where we’re at. … It’s important to get off to a good start.”
Hauck would agree that it’s important, but he won’t put any extra emphasis on getting this victory more than any other.
It’s just two different paths to the same goal. And on Thursday night, we’ll see who wins out.