Gophers seem to have upper hand on UNLV

BY foxsports • August 24, 2012

MINNEAPOLIS — If you think the University of Minnesota football program is in rebuilding mode, take a look at the Gophers' opponent for the 2012 season opener next Thursday.

The UNLV Rebels finished with just two wins in 2011. They also won only a pair of games in 2010. In fact, since 2004, UNLV has had six two-win seasons, including four straight from 2004-07. The Rebels have not finished .500 or better since 2003, when they were 6-6 despite just a 2-5 record in conference play.

You have to go all the way back to the beginning of the millennium to find a Rebels team with a winning season. Back in 2000, UNLV had an 8-5 record and earned a spot in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Since then, though, UNLV has failed to produce a winning record for 11 seasons (and counting).

A look at the Rebels' stats from a year ago explains why they put together their second straight two-win season. UNLV's offense managed just 17.3 points per game, which ranked 113th in all of Division I football. The Rebels' defense was even worse, giving up 40.4 points per game, good for 118th in Division I. That means only two teams allowed more points per game than UNLV. The Rebels also allowed 443.17 yards per game, 105th in Division I.

Three times last season, UNLV surrendered 50 or more points — including a season-high 59 in a 59-7 loss to Washington State. In five other games, the Rebels gave up at least 50 points. Minnesota was by no means an offensive juggernaut in 2011, scoring just 18.4 points per game (111th in Division I). But opening the 2012 season against a UNLV team that couldn't stop anyone defensively a year ago could be a good way for the Gophers to jump start their offense early in the season.

It wasn't until Tuesday that third-year UNLV coach Bobby Hauck named his starting quarterback. Redshirt freshman Nick Sherry will be under center on Thursday when the Rebels host the Gophers at Sam Boyd Stadium in a 10 p.m. CT start. Sherry edged out last season's starter, Caleb Herring, for the job.

Facing an inexperienced quarterback in his first college game could be exactly what the doctor ordered for a Gophers defense that had just four interceptions in 2011, tied for third-fewest in all of Division I.

Any way you slice it, this looks like a game Minnesota should win. But look no further than last year and you'll be reminded of similar games the Gophers should have won (on paper, at least) but ended up losing. Those included a 28-21 loss at home to New Mexico State and a 37-24 loss — again at home — to North Dakota State, a Football Championship Subdivision school.

The Gophers can make a statement in Thursday's opener by putting together a convincing win. Hanging a crooked number on offense would be a sign that Minnesota and second-year head coach Jerry Kill are taking steps in the right direction. Senior quarterback MarQueis Gray, who was the team's starter last season after two years as a wide receiver, can also show that he is an improved player from 2011.

While UNLV has given little reason to strike fear into the Gophers, Minnesota is saying all the right things leading up to Thursday's opener.

"From last year's film, we've seen they're still a solid team," Gophers defensive end Ben Perry said. "A lot of returners, so we expect some experience there. We're ready for what they can throw at us."

The old saying is that whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. A loss to a UNLV squad coming off back-to-back two-win seasons will not stay in Las Vegas if the Gophers falter on Thursday. In fact, it could haunt them for the rest of the season.

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