UNLV (0-0) at Minnesota (0-0)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Thursday, August 29, 7 p.m. (et).
FACTS & STATS: Site: TCF Bank Stadium (50,805) -- Minneapolis, Minnesota. Television: Big Ten Network. Home Record: UNLV 0-0, Minnesota 0-0. Away Record: UNLV 0-0, Minnesota 0-0. Neutral Record: UNLV 0-0, Minnesota 0-0. Conference Record: UNLV 0-0, Minnesota 0-0. Series Record: Minnesota leads, 1-0.
GAME NOTES: For the second year in a row, the UNLV Rebels and the Minnesota Golden Gophers pair off to begin the 2013 college football campaign on Thursday night at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
For the Golden Gophers and head coach Jerry Kill, this is the earliest the program has ever started a season. Coincidentally, the last time Minnesota played at home in the month of August, the squad defeated Northern Illinois in 2008, coach Kill's former program.
Kill began his career with the Gophers in 2011, the team posting a record of just 3-9, but last season he pushed the squad to an even 6-6 mark overall, just 2-6 in Big Ten Conference action, during the regular season. By playing .500 football a year ago, Minnesota was able to make it to the Meineke Car Care Bowl against Texas Tech where they came up just short in a 34-31 decision.
Including that postseason setback, Minnesota comes into the 2013 campaign on a three-game slide, matching the losing streak of the Rebels who again had their issues as they played for head coach Bobby Hauck in 2012.
Hauck watched his squad win a grand total of two games in 13 opportunities last season. UNLV surprised Air Force in the Mountain West Conference opener in late September (38-35), and then blew the doors off a slightly improved New Mexico group (35-7). The program was just 2-6 in league play and has bowed in eight of the last nine outings overall.
Last year, the Gophers narrowly escaped Sin City with a 30-27 overtime victory in the first-ever meeting between the two schools on the football field.
The good news for the Rebels this season is that they return more starters than any program in the Mountain West, a total of nine such performers on both sides of the ball.
Quarterback Nick Sherry who last season, prior to being slowed by injury, could have easily set the MWC freshman record for passing yards, finished with 2,544 yards, ranking him fourth in league history and seventh on the school's single-season list for any signal-caller, regardless of class.
Sherry's 16 passing touchdowns were the most for the squad since 2008, but those scores were offset by his 17 interceptions. The good news here is that Sherry has a host of qualified receivers at his disposal, notable among them being Devante Davis who was first on the unit last year with 61 catches for 854 yards and four touchdowns. Davis was matched in the scoring department by Marcus Sullivan who tallied 55 grabs for 659 yards. After the pair, there's a handful of returners who are expected to make even bigger gains in 2013.
Needing just 701 yards to become the school's all-time leading rusher, Tim Cornett ran for 1,232 yards and seven TDs a year ago, not to mention adding another 108 yards on 14 receptions.
The Rebels expect to be far better at slowing down the competition this year after ranking 106th in the country with 207.1 ypg allowed on the ground in 2012.
One of the biggest changes for the Rebels on defense moving forward is the hiring of a new defensive coordinator in Tim Hauck. If the name sounds familiar it should, he played safety in the NFL for 13 seasons and just happens to be the younger brother of Bobby, now his boss.
The Haucks have their work cut out for them as they try to fill the void left by John Lotulelei who was by far the top tackler for the program with 120 stops a year ago. A distant second on that list was Tim Hasson (76 tackles). a former walk-on who started all 13 games for the team at strong-side linebacker last season and has appeared in all 38 games during his career.
Working against the Minnesota offense is the fact that the team enters the season with the second youngest and most inexperienced quarterback group in the country. Philip Nelson is the only one with starting experience, but he completed just 49.3 percent of his attempts and had just as many interceptions (eight) as he had TD passes a year ago.
With so much inexperience at the quarterback position, you can see why coach Kill will be putting the ball in the hands of his running backs as much as possible this season. With that said, expect to see Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams getting plenty of touches. Kirkwood led the group with 926 yards and six TDs on the ground in 2012, but still the Gophers averaged just 3.8 yards per attempt.
Minnesota's pass defense was just fourth-best in the Big Ten a year ago, but in giving up 186.6 ypg through the air the group actually ranked 12th in the country overall. A big reason for that effort was Michael Carter who led with four interceptions and 15 pass breakups, but he's no longer around and that puts even more pressure on defensive back Derrick Wells who recorded a pair of picks and 10 pass breakups in 2012.
Another painful realization for Minnesota is the departure of defensive end D.L. Wilhite who turned just 30 total tackles into 11 stops for loss and 8.5 sacks last season, both of which led the program. Bringing back Ra'Shede Hageman at one end position is critical though, considering he placed second with six sacks and 7.5 TFL.
Historically, coach Kill's third season with a program produces major results and that's what the Golden Gophers are expecting this time around as well. As long as the offensive line can buy enough time for Nelson and create holes for the running backs, the Gophers should get off on the right foot at home.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Minnesota 31, UNLV 20
08/28 10:40:03 ET