Gophers look to start season on right foot versus UNLV

The Gophers will open the season by hosting UNLV, which hasn't won on the road since October 2009.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Gophers safety Brock Vereen will have his own cheering section at TCF Bank Stadium on Aug. 29 when Minnesota hosts UNLV. The only question is which team's colors his family will be wearing.

Vereen's father, Henry, played football at UNLV. His mother, Venita, was a tennis player there too. As much as his parents tried to get Vereen to attend their alma mater, he headed north to Minnesota instead.

"To grow up in that UNLV atmosphere, to cheer for them and root for them and go to their games, and then to turn against them, it's weird," Vereen said. "But knowing that my family wants me to succeed, even against UNLV, it's going to be fun."

The Vereens had a similar predicament last year, too, when the Gophers opened the 2012 season on the road at UNLV. His father grew up in Las Vegas and still has plenty of family members down there.

Vereen said the number of family and friends making the trip from Las Vegas to TCF Bank Stadium for the season opener is still rising, but he estimated there will be at least 20 in his cheering section. Most of those same people made it to Sam Boyd Stadium to watch Vereen's Gophers beat UNLV by a 30-27 final in three overtimes to open the year.

"That was a Vereen sections, for sure," said Vereen, who had an interception in that game. "It was just a great experience. I'll never forget that game."

Looking back at the schedule last year, the UNLV game was one that, on paper, the Gophers should have won. It wasn't easy, though -- and it wasn't pretty. 

Minnesota's offense struggled to find a rhythm. Quarterback MarQueis Gray badly overthrew his receivers numerous times throughout the night. Both teams managed just one touchdown in regulation before the Gophers scored a pair of touchdowns in the first two overtimes and converted a field goal in the third extra session.

Thanks in part to that win over UNLV, the Gophers were bowl eligible with a 6-6 regular-season record. The opener against the Rebels could have gone either way; a loss there would have prevented Jerry Kill's Gophers team from reaching the postseason for the first time sine 2009.

But Minnesota did prevail in the opener and earned a spot in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas. The Gophers wound up losing to Texas Tech by a field goal, but Minnesota's players seemed to gain confidence from that game despite the loss. 

The Rebels, meanwhile, finished just 2-11 on the season, with its only wins coming against Air Force and New Mexico. It was UNLV's third straight two-win season, but it nearly could have been three wins if not for the triple-overtime loss to the Gophers in Week 1.

Neither team had explosive offenses in 2012, as was evident by the season opener a year ago. The Gophers finished 108th in overall offense, while UNLV was 88th. Minnesota was much better defensively a year ago, finishing 33rd in the nation in total defense. Its secondary took a big step forward, and that began in the opener against UNLV when the Gophers intercepted three Nick Sherry passes. Now a junior, Sherry will get another shot at the team that held him to 116 passing yards in the 2012 opener. He's one of 18 returning starters from last year's team, perhaps one thing in the Rebels' favor as they prepare for 2013.

This will be UNLV's first trip to TCF Bank Stadium, and the Rebels will be carrying a 22-game road losing streak to Minnesota. The last time UNLV won on the road was Oct. 24, 2009 in a 34-17 victory at New Mexico. 

When the Rebels do hit the road for Minneapolis, there will be several Vereens in that caravan. It might not be easy for them to choose sides when Aug. 29 finally rolls around.

"There's going to be a lot of fun trash talk," Vereen said. "I know my family will be rooting for Minnesota -- at least for that day."

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