TIME: Thursday, 10:00 p.m. (CST)
SITE: Las Vegas, Nev.
STADIUM: Sam Boyd Stadium (36,800)
TV: CBS Sports Network
SPREAD: Minnesota by 8.5
SERIES: Thursday's game will be the first meeting between the two teams.
RECORD: Minnesota (0-0, 0-0 Big Ten), UNLV (0-0, 0-0 Mountain West)
"I think we've improved ourselves in every area you can think of, but that doesn't guarantee you any wins. I think we're stronger. We have more speed. I think we're more mature, even though we're young. I think they've worked their tail ends off, but again, that doesn't guarantee you anything. As far as we've come, we have a lot of things to clean up." – Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill
With two relatively new coaching administrations facing off, the stakes are high for Thursday's battle between the Golden Gophers and the Rebels of UNLV. Bobby Hauck is in his third season with the Rebels and has struggled thus far, winning just four games in the past two years. A strong start to the 2012 campaign is essential for Hauck who is trying to build a program in Las Vegas.
Likewise, Jerry Kill will look to improve on just three wins last year including a disappointing 1-3 in nonconference contests. With a strong offseason and high expectations from anxious fans, Kill will need a strong performance on Thursday to keep the Gophers moving forward.
KEYS TO THE GAME:
The Gophers offense has shown promise during fall camp. MarQueis Gray has had chemistry with his receivers and a healthy stable of running backs are could make for a dynamic rushing offense. In order to open up space for Gray, the backs will need to establish a presence early. If the Gophers can open the contest with an established running game, Gray should be able to dissect a secondary that gave up almost 250 passing yards per game last season and is only returning one starter. Look for James Gillum and Donnell Kirkwood to handle the majority of the carries with K.J. Maye earning some touches as an explosive option out of the backfield.
The key to Minnesota's defense will be to keep pressure on redshirt freshman quarterback Nick Sherry. Jerry Kill explained the important of an active pass rush at Saturday's pregame press conference. "I think any time you got a quarterback like that, you want to keep him off balance and don't want him to get comfortable. Keep him uncomfortable as much as you can." The Gophers will be throwing a lot of different looks and personnel packages at Sherry, not letting the young quarterback get into rhythm.
The Rebels have a solid run game led by junior running back Tim Cornett and a physical offensive line led by sophomore left tackle Brett Boyko and have the potential to wear the Gophers down in the Vegas heat if they can control the ball and move the chains. A big part of that will revolve around the poise and play-calling of redshirt freshman QB Nick Sherry who will be making his college debut.
Defensively, the Rebels must find a way to contain Minnesota QB MarQueis Gray who has the ability to hurt them both through the air and with his feet. The Rebels ranked 90th in the nation in pass defense and tied for 108th in sacks with 14.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
-- QB MarQueis Gray #5 – Coming off a strong finish to last season, the expectations will be high for the Gophers' senior signal-caller. The 6-foot-5 Gray has had a strong fall, showing better decision-making and accuracy. With an improved group of wide receivers, Gray will have a number of explosive, sure-handed targets to throw to. In scrimmage scenarios, he has been able to go through his reads, only taking off to run when all his receivers are covered downfield. Look for Gray to be a more complete passer when he takes the field Thursday against the Rebels.
-- RB/WR K.J. Maye #4 – K.J. Maye is one of a handful of true freshmen that will make the trip to Las Vegas and will likely find their way onto the field. Like Gray, Maye has had a very strong fall camp, impressing coaches and fans alike. He brings quickness and escapability to compliment the strong running styles of James Gillum and Donnell Kirkwood. Maye also is able to catch the ball out of the backfield or at the slot position, making him a dynamic player who has the potential to be a difference-maker in the season opener.
-- DT Ra'Shede Hageman #99 – One of the biggest questions marks on defense for the Gophers is the front four. The potential star from this group is 6-foot-6, 300-pound tackle, Ra'Shede Hageman. The Minnesota native has elite athleticism to go with great size and strength. The Gophers will likely let Hageman lose on Thursday in order to put some pressure on first-time starting quarterback Nick Sherry.
-- QB Nick Sherry #3 – The redshirt freshman makes his college start against a Big Ten opponent for the Rebels. How he reacts under pressure in his first start in a nationally televised game will be a big key for UNLV not just in the opener but moving forward.
-- RB Tim Cornett #35 – The hard-nosed 6-foot, 205-pound junior is the clear leader on offense for the Rebels, having rushed for 671 yards and seven touchdowns as a junior. Cornett will be counted on to carry the load on Thursday to take pressure off Sherry.
-- DE Parker Holloway #90 – The mid-year JC transfer from Trinity Valley College in Athens, Texas, was brought in to help upgrade an anemic Rebel pass rush that managed just 14 sacks a year ago.