Preview: Opener at UNLV provides Gophers an immediate test of progress
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Who: Gophers (0-0) at UNLV (0-0).
When: 10:04 p.m. Thursday.
Where: Sam Boyd Stadium (capacity: 36,800), Las Vegas.
TV: CBS Sports Network.
Line: Gophers by 8.
Coaches: Gophers -- Jerry Kill (2nd season, 3-9). UNLV -- Bobby Hauck (3rd season, 4-21).
Series: This is the teams' first meeting.
At stake: In Kill's four previous head coaching stops, his teams have shown quantifiable leaps in production in Year 2. Kill insists the Gophers, after a three-win season in 2011, are primed to follow the pattern. Whether or not that holds true or is overblown hyperbole will become apparent quickly as the Gophers traverse a mediocre nonconference schedule, beginning with a trip to the Mojave Desert to face a fledgling UNLV squad. The Rebels present a winnable challenge for Kill's Gophers, who will have to overcome a hostile road environment, with game-time temperature expected to be in the upper-90s. The Gophers enter as the projected favorite, which is likely to be a rare occurrence in the weeks ahead. With a difficult Big Ten schedule awaiting them, the Gophers have to pick up wins early this season if they have any hope of obtaining bowl eligibility. For as problem-filled as the last few years have been for the Gophers, UNLV has had it worst, posting only two wins in six of the last eight seasons. The pressure facing Hauck to bring the Rebels into the realm of respectability has been bumped up significantly after fielding one of the NCAA's worst teams in back-to-back seasons. Like the Gophers, UNLV's roster skews young, but Hauck has enough returning players to expect at least slight upgrades on both sides of the ball.
Gophers: Apart from a few reported minor tweaks, the "U" made it through fall camp with no prominent injury concerns. "I think we're as healthy as I think you can be going into a first game," Kill said Tuesday on the Big Ten coaches' teleconference. WR Brandon Green missed portions of practice in the last week due to reoccurring knee soreness, but he returned to full contact on Sunday without issue. Green expressed little concern, saying the knee, which was surgically repaired two years ago, swells up only periodically. Redshirt junior LB Brendan Beal, whose collegiate career has been postponed since 2008 largely to due injury, broke a bone in his right hand in practice last week but is expected to play Thursday.
UNLV: TE Nick Gstrein, who entered fall camp second on the depth chart, is expected to miss the game with a foot injury suffered recently in practice. DE Sonny Sanito is also out indefinitely with a knee injury. RB/WR Eric Johnson was reportedly questionable as of Tuesday with a hamstring strain.
Three things to watch
Gray's offense: Senior QB MarQueis Gray is the lynchpin in the Gophers offense. Entering his second year under center, Gray has the ability to be a dynamic game-changer with his upper-echelon athleticism and speed. But after a tumultuous first season at quarterback, Gray has to prove he has indeed matured and has full command of the offense. It starts with shedding his previous tendency to overcompensate for the offense's inefficiencies by fleeing the pocket on a regular basis. Establishing the run game with TBs James Gillum and Donnell Kirkwood at the forefront could take significant pressure off Gray. Last season, the Gophers' running backs combined for just over half of the team's rushing yards (945 out of 1920 yards) -- a stat in need of altering. While all facets of the Gophers offense were less-than-intimidating last season, the passing attack was dismal; their 150.33 yards per game ranked them 109th out 120 FBS-level teams. Gray's receiving corps is still a considerable work-in-progress and it will take patience to find some semblance of output through the air. However, UNLV's spotty secondary presents the Gophers with a key chance to test the perceived growth of their passing game. Gaining ground by way of the pass could make the difference for the Kill's crew. Gray should be aided by OC Matt Limegrover's intention to stick with a simplified game plan. "We won't have everything in. ... We don't want to be doing a whole lot of stuff," Limegrover said. "We don't want these guys thinking a lot and playing slow. We've trained them to do things fast, so we're going to keep with basically the same game plan we've had all fall camp."
Runnin' Rebels: UNLV was bogged down last season by a passing attack (109.3 yards per game) worse than the Gophers' that forced the Rebels' running backs to provide much of the offense. With an offensive line that returns five starters -- three are sophomores -- the running game is likely to be the strength of the offense again this season. The Gophers will have to contend with UNLV's primary HBs Tim Cornett and Dionza Bradford, who combined for 1289 yards last season. Except for DT Ra'Shede Hageman, the raw "U" defensive line isn't imposing and could struggle early on to keep the Rebels in check.
Freshman QB vs. unproven secondary: Command of the UNLV offense has switched hands. Redshirt freshman QB Nick Sherry beat out former starter Caleb Herring for the No. 1 spot. Facing a freshman in Game 1 could bode well for the Gophers, especially their secondary. The secondary was by far the weakest portion of the "U" defense in 2011 and upgrading the unit was a major focus in the offseason. Three junior college transfers (Martez Shabazz, Briean Boddy and Jeremy Baltazar) and a true freshman (Eric Murray) will back up starting senior CBs Troy Stoudermire and Michael Carter, while sophomores Derrick Wells and Cedric Thompson captain the group at safety. DC Tracy Claeys' comfort level with his secondary has increased, though he still has a bit of trepidation entering Thursday's match-up. "I'm excited about our secondary. I think we've improved there, but I'm nervous going into the first game just with formation shifts, motions and having kids back there that haven't played," Claeys said Monday on 1500 ESPN's Tom Pelissero show. "A mistake back there could cost you points." Facing an unimposing UNLV offense gives the Gophers a reasonable opportunity to find out if their enhancements hold up. The Gophers' best bet at containing UNLV is to attempt to keep Sherry off-balance and out-of-sync. If Sherry gets rattled in the first half, the Gophers may have an opening to build a lead.
The call: Gophers
Given the Gophers' rebuilding nature, the nonconference schedule is bound to be filled with moments that will have onlookers shaking their heads. But the Gophers appear better equipped to weather some of those issues -- missed assignments, inconsistent play, etc. -- than they did last year in nonconference losses to USC, New Mexico State and North Dakota State. The Gophers and UNLV are both programs desperate for upward movement, and Thursday's game could provide one side the needed boost. Kill's team is in the best position to take advantage of it. With a pair of lackluster offenses on display, scoring may be sparse. Gray is not an elite quarterback, but he holds a distinct edge over Sherry. Gaining confidence in the first half is critical for the Gophers. If UNLV is prevented from scoring early on and building a lead, the Gophers should be able to outlast the Rebels in the fourth quarter.