Rebels football:

UNLV Gameday: Rebels looking to avoid third straight lower-division loss

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Barry Wong

The Rebel Girls perform during a break in the action against Central Michigan at Sam Boyd Stadium Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013.

Momentum clearly played a factor in UNLV’s great second half last week against Central Michigan. That was a much-needed improvement, and now the Rebels (1-2) will see if those good vibes can carry the week and help them get off to a decent start Saturday against Western Illinois (2-1).

Kickoff is at 6 p.m. at Sam Boyd Stadium. The game isn’t on TV.

The Rebels are only about a 12-point favorite in part because of the Leathernecks’ performance last weekend at Minnesota. When UNLV played at TFC Bank Stadium, it surrendered three return touchdowns and lost by 28. However, in their game, the Leathernecks were the ones creating the turnovers and they actually led — 12-7 — until late in the third quarter.

Minnesota was also dealing with the absence of head coach Jerry Kill. He had to be carted off the field at halftime because of a seizure, his fourth in three years at Minnesota.

So there are two main factors contributing to the belief in the Leathernecks: that very recent comparison against a common opponent and the Rebels’ losses to Division I-AA teams in each of the past two years. Speaking of that division:

THREE STORYLINES

1. Division I-AA takeover

Eight teams from college football’s second-best division defeated teams in Division I-A in Week 1, a new record for a single week. One of those teams, two-time defending champ North Dakota State, is hosting ESPN College GameDay this weekend, a sign of respect as much as it is a sign of the weak game slate this weekend.

As a Northern Iowa fan, I know more about than your average person about Division I-AA. Call it FCS if you want. I don’t.

And what I can tell you is that Western Illinois is absolutely a team UNLV should beat. There’s a hierarchy in Division I-AA just like in the big league, and the Leathernecks are somewhere in the middle of the pack.

This isn’t NDSU or Eastern Washington, which defeated Kansas State and No. 25 Oregon State, respectively. Those teams will compete for the national title and could take down many Division I-A teams if the ball bounced right.

While the Rebels should absolutely take this game seriously, Western Illinois may finish sixth in its own league. UNLV was in a similar position last year against a mediocre Northern Arizona team and the Rebels flopped.

Want to take a step forward? Put this one away early.

2. Turnovers

First-year Leathernecks coach Bob Nielsen, a two-time national champ at Division II Minnesota-Duluth, has a difficult turnaround in front of him. A look at the numbers suggests Western Illinois is making up for that by creating a staggering number of takeaways, but those numbers are a bit misleading.

In WIU’s first game, a 42-9 victory against I-AA bottom feeder Hampton, the Leathernecks created nine turnovers, including six interceptions. It’s largely because of that one fluky game that WIU leads the nation (both I-A and I-AA) with a 3.7 turnover margin per game.

In the two games after that — a walloping against Division II Quincy and the Minnesota loss — the Leathernecks created just one each. To their credit, though, the Leathernecks haven’t committed any turnovers.

So fear the numbers if you want — they were a big part of UNLV coach Bobby Hauck’s praise for WIU — but do so knowing what’s actually behind them.

3. The long road

Credit to ESPN Radio’s Chuck Ojeda for pointing this out: all five of UNLV’s scoring drives against Central Michigan went over 50 yards, and the four touchdown drives averaged 77.5 yards.

UNLV’s defense certainly deserves credit for its second-half performance but it’s not like the offense was set up with a short field. With senior Caleb Herring at the helm, UNLV marched down the field several times and earned its comeback victory. It was very impressive to see from a team that has often looked incapable of pulling that off.

Key Matchup

UNLV’s defensive line vs. WIU’s offensive line

This is a matchup that should really favor the Rebels, and success up front would be key to making this an easy victory. So far the Leathernecks haven’t made any drastic mistakes but UNLV has the size up front to change that.

A failure here would put the pressure on UNLV’s always-vulnerable secondary, and no Rebel wants that.

Speaking of that secondary, Hauck said former starting cornerback Sidney Hodge’s career is likely done. He decided to get an injured shoulder fixed and isn’t expected to apply for a medical redshirt. Hodge is expected to graduate this year and with his wife has one child and another on the way.

Over/Under: 1.5 UNLV quarterbacks used

Hauck has said he plans to use both quarterbacks in Saturday’s game, much to the disbelief of anyone who watched the Central Michigan victory. Herring absolutely deserves the start after his career game and, unless it’s in mop-up duty, I don’t see the value in a two-quarterback system that throws sophomore Nick Sherry in there for a few random series.

Last week I thought Sherry should have started. But after a spring and summer of outplaying him on the practice field, Herring did it again in a game and has earned his place at the top.

That’s what he said: “I don’t think our major issue is defense right now, compared to where we’ve been.” — Hauck

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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