Season Preview: UNLV Rebels

This is GopherDigest first edition of the season previews and we look at Minnesota's first opponent, the UNLV Rebels

The Gophers open up the 2013 season with a familiar opponent, the UNLV Rebels. The Gophers once again will open the season with a thursday night game against the Rebels, but this time the Gophers will play host to the Rebels instead of facing off in the desert. Last year the Rebels went 2-11 (they took advantage of the "Hawaii rule" in order to play 13 games)

Last years meeting:

The Gophers easily outperformed the Rebels (the Gophers had 478 yards of offense to the Rebels 275) but mustered just 13 points in regulation. The Gophers tight ends stepped up in overtime as Marqueis Gray threw two touchdown passes to Rabe in the first two overtimes. Derrick Wells then came up with a huge interception in the third overtime (his second interception of UNLV QB Nick Sherry who was making his first start) and Jordan Wettstein hit his third field goal of the game to end the game with a final score of 30-27.

The Rebel Offense:

Last year the Rebel's surprised nearly everyone by running a pro style offense in the opener after primarily running out of the pistol formation the year before. Like the Gophers, the Rebels like to run the ball quite a bit. Last year the Rebels leading rusher, Tim Cornett, had 1,232 rushing yards and 6 TD's. Cornett is back this year and will likely again be featured heavily in the Rebel's offense. Backing up Cornett will likely be Northwestern transfer Adonis Smith who in 2011 had 31 yards on 10 carries against the Gophers in a 28-13 Northwestern win. At Quarterback the starter again appears to be Sherry. While Sherry now has a year of experience under his belt he didn't progress much as he had 7 interceptions in his final three games. Sherry has a big arm that could stretch the field but as Derrick Wells demonstrated in last year's game, his decision making is an area of concern for UNLV. He completed just 53.1% of his passes over the course of the season and had a TD-INT ratio of 16-17. Sherry does have some threats on the outside as he only loses one key receiver. The top two receivers last year both return and both have good speed. Up front, UNLV returns 3 starters and 7 of the top ten lineman. The two starters they lose were both from the right side of the line which was the weaker side of UNLV's line. This group should improve again (went from 35 sacks two seasons ago to 25 last season and made strides in the running game as well). The rebels are also bringing in a new offensive coordinator, there third in as many years.

The Rebel Defense:

Last year the Gophers ran for 209 yards against the Rebels defense. A big reason that the Gophers were able to run the ball effectively against the Rebels was the undersized defensive line UNLV trotted out. The Rebels defensive line will once again be undersized as the projected starters at defensive tackle weigh in at 280 and 285. The Rebels are also undersized on the outside of the defensive line as the projected starters weigh in at 240 and 265. The Rebels didn't have a lot of success getting to the quarterback despite utilizing undersized lineman as their 20 sacks ranked 86th nationally. The Rebels aren't exactly tipping the scales at linebacker either as the projected starters weigh in at 215, 240, and 200. They will also be replacing their top tackler and Mountain West First Teamer John Lotulelei however they do return pretty much everyone else and should be better than last years group. UNLV also returns most of their contributors in the secondary and should be better than last year's group although they ranked 70th in the nation last year. UNLV will have a new defensive coordinator (Tim Hauck, brother of the Head Coach). Like offensive coordinator, this is their third in as many years.

3 Keys to the Game:

1. Get the running game going early. Getting Kirkwood and Williams going early will be key. This not only allows the Gophers to sustain drives and wear down the undersized UNLV defense but also sets up the play action pass which will likely be a bigger part of the Gopher's offense this season. If Kirkwood and Williams get going early, expect the TE's to have some nice receiving numbers as well.

2. Prevent the big play. The Gophers started off 4-0 last year for a reason; they didn't allow a big play in the first four games. This is especially important against UNLV because Sherry has a big arm and they have receivers with speed.

3. Win the turnover battle. This was a large factor in last year's game as Sherry threw an interception in the third overtime (his third of the game, second interception by Wells) that essentially sealed the game. MarQueis Gray also threw an interception.

Prediction:

31-17 Minnesota win. The Gophers running game will be too much for an undersized UNLV defense. Nelson won't be asked to carry the team and will have a solid game. Look for the TE's to be used heavily in both the running game and the passing game.

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