UNLV football:

Rebels surprised, then excited when bowl decision became public

Players had a hard time keeping up with the dizzying predictions before getting the official news

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UNLV Athletics

UNLV coach Bobby Hauck, second from right, and players (from left) Kenneth Penny, Caleb Herring and Brett Boyko answer questions about the Heart of Dallas Bowl at the Rebels’ press conference on Monday, Dec. 9, 2013.

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UNLV senior defensive tackle Tyler Gaston answers questions about the Heart of Dallas Bowl at the Rebels' press conference on Monday, Dec. 9, 2013.

Tyler Gaston had some apprehensions about the Jan. 1 date for UNLV’s bowl game. Every Rebel, including Gaston, was thrilled the team was selected for any game, but some put extra value on playing in the Heart of Dallas Bowl against North Texas because New Year’s Day is a traditional date for college football.

Normally, Gaston said, he would celebrate New Year’s Eve with his family, so his first reaction was a little sadness that he couldn’t do that this year.

“But then I thought that I may not see these guys anymore after this year,” said Gaston, a senior defensive tackle and Rancho High grad. “What better way to bring it in than with my new family?”

UNLV coach Bobby Hauck and a few selected players were all smiles Monday as they discussed the program’s first bowl game since 2000 and only the fourth in program history. The news about the game started to trickle out to the players Sunday as they prepared for a team meeting. The general feeling was joy and surprise, since the Heart of Dallas Bowl is not one of the six with Mountain West ties.

Offensive lineman Brett Boyko said the constantly changing predictions over the past week were annoying. Quarterback Caleb Herring tried to avoid the updates and guesses, but word would leak to him from one source or another.

“It was pretty hard to keep up with anyways,” Herring said.

ESPN Regional Television, which owns and operates several bowls, maneuvered UNLV over to the vacant Big Ten slot in the Heart of Dallas Bowl and dropped Conference USA’s Middle Tennessee State into the Mountain West half of the Armed Forces Bowl. That’s how the Rebels ended up in a game that was barely on its radar against the Mean Green, who are in their first season as a C-USA member. North Texas had been in the Sun Belt Conference for the previous 12 years.

North Texas’ campus is about 45 miles from Cotton Bowl Stadium. UNLV junior cornerback Kenneth Penny grew up even closer, about 17 miles south in Lancaster, Texas. His phone has been going off since Sunday with people asking for tickets.

“Oh yeah, it’s a madhouse. My mom is like, ‘Well, your new cousin…’ ” Penny said. “So many new names and new faces coming up now.”

The Rebels practiced Thursday through Saturday in anticipation of a game. After final exams are finished this week, they’ll get back on the practice field Friday and start putting their work in. After a brief Christmas break, coach Bobby Hauck said, the team will get into its regular game-week schedule and preparations.

Until then, the coaches will focus as much practice time on giving extra reps to younger players as they do making sure the starters are prepared for a game that will be played more than a month after their previous one. It’s a new routine for the players, but several coaches, including Hauck as an assistant, have been through bowl season before.

As practices start to ramp back up, the focus will turn from UNLV just getting into this game to how it plans to win as a 6.5-point underdog against a team that should have far more fans in attendance because of the short drive. Until then, the players — particularly seniors such as Herring and Gaston — will take a moment to appreciate how far they’ve come.

Six victories in their first three seasons have given way to seven wins and a bowl game on their way out. No longer will the Rebels only be able to sell belief in what you can achieve if you join their family.

“There’s proof,” Gaston said. “It stands for something.”

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

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