Rebels football:

UNLV Gameday: Inside the Rebels’ 2013 season opener at Minnesota

Gophers quarterback Phillip Nelson will be the first challenge for a Rebels secondary that must be better this year

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Steve Marcus

UNLV’s Tim Cornett comes up short of the goal line in regulation play during UNLV’s season opener against Minnesota at Sam Boyd Stadium Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012.

For the second straight season, UNLV opens its football season against Minnesota. The main difference this time is a change of venue, which isn’t good news for a Rebels team holding a 22-game road losing streak.

The weight of that streak doesn’t feel quite as heavy when the Rebels’ record is 0-0. Factor in that UNLV had plenty of chances to win last year’s meeting before falling 30-27 in triple overtime and you’ve got a group of Rebels still feeling good about themselves.

“Everybody’s anxious and foaming at the mouth,” said Tim Hasson, a senior linebacker.

The odds don’t favor the Rebels, who are 14-point underdogs. That’s a familiar position for UNLV. Here are some other factoids and numbers to get you ready for the Rebels to kick off today at 4 p.m. on the Big Ten Network:

THREE STORYLINES

1. UNLV is healthy

This may seem obvious since it’s the first game but it’s not always easy to get through spring and fall camps with everyone intact. The Rebels didn’t get here only because of luck.

UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said the team made a concerted effort to do fewer live reps, especially in the fall. The Rebels got most of their work in during spring and then focused on smaller things throughout fall workouts.

Hauck said they could take it easier in the last month both because they front-loaded a lot of work in spring and the experience up and down the roster. There are two new coordinators but the system is mostly the same and the team brings back 19 starters and plenty of backups.

That decision may have led to UNLV’s health right now. However, if the Rebels go out against the Gophers and miss a bunch of tackles — without live reps they haven’t done much live tackling — then the plan may have been for naught.

“That’s the calculated risk you take,” Hauck said.

2. Rebels missing a couple of Keys

Brothers Kenny and Kendal Keys will not play in UNLV’s opener.

Kenny Keys is a sophomore defensive back who last year started at safety in five games and appeared in every game. Hauck said he's dealing with a personal issue.

His younger brother, Kendal Keys, only recently joined the Rebels as a true freshman. The receiver had originally committed to Boise State before changing his mind and landing with the Rebels during fall camp. Kendal Keys has not been academically cleared.

The timeline for both of their returns is uncertain.

3. Jerry Kill’s rule of threes

Hauck’s third year, last season, was supposed to be the breakout year. In other words, he was trying to pull a Kill.

Kill, who’s entering his third year as Minnesota’s coach, has won 10 games in Year Three at each of his previous two stops. At Southern Illinois from 2001-03 he went 1-10, 4-8 and then 10-2. At Northern Illinois from 2008-10 he duplicated the feat by going from 6-7 and 7-6 to 10-3 in his third season.

The Gophers went 3-9 in Kill’s first year and 6-7 last season, which ended with a Meineke Car Care Bowl loss to Texas Tech. Few are picking Minnesota to win 10 games this year, but an improvement sure seems likely.

Key Matchup

Minnesota QB Phillip Nelson vs. UNLV’s secondary

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UNLV quarterback Nick Sherry passes the ball during UNLV's season opener against Minnesota at Sam Boyd Stadium Thursday, Aug. 30, 2012.

This could also read Nelson vs. UNLV’s defense since the defensive line and linebackers can also play a large role in pass defense, but that doesn’t get at the real intrigue here.

Is the backend of UNLV’s defense any better? That’s the real question worth asking right now. Minnesota’s MarQueis Gray was hardly a great passer yet he went for 269 yards in last year’s meeting, and not much of that came in the three overtimes.

Nelson is a better passer and could also be the fastest player on the team, at least if you believe Hauck. UNLV is going to see several quarterbacks better than Nelson this year so if the sophomore picks about the Rebels’ secondary — especially on simple routes — then this group could be in for another long year.

Over/Under: 1.5 UNLV turnovers

You have to budget for some first-game jitters. UNLV might be able to survive one giveaway but two may be too much in a game that could be out of reach even if they play well.

Stats and trends in UNLV’s favor: The Gophers’ quarterback corps is the second youngest and most inexperienced (seven games) group in the country … UNLV is won three of its last four games played before Labor Day … Minnesota’s defense last year allowed 172 rushing yards per game.

Stats and trends in Minnesota’s favor: The Gophers are 10-3-1 in season-opening games the year after they played in a bowl game … Leading rusher Donnell Kirkwood has carried the ball 249 straight times with committing a turnover … This is Minnesota’s first season opener at TCF Bank Stadium, which opened in 2009.

That’s what he said: “It behooves you to get a few.” —Hauck on creating turnovers

Taylor Bern can be reached at 948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Taylor on Twitter at twitter.com/taylorbern.

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