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Updated: August 28th, 2013 5:47pm
What to watch for: Gophers must set tone in opener against UNLV

What to watch for: Gophers must set tone in opener against UNLV

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com

Who: Minnesota Gophers (0-0) vs UNLV Rebels (0-0)
When: 6:06 p.m. Thursday.
Where: TCF Bank Stadium (capacity: 50,833)
TV: Big Ten Network
Line: Gophers by 14
Coaches: Gophers -- Jerry Kill (3rd season, 9-16). UNLV -- Bobby Hauck (4th season, 6-32).
Series: Minnesota leads 1-0
Last meeting: Aug. 30, 2012 -- It wasn't pretty, in fact it took three overtimes to sort out, but the Gophers outlasted the Rebels to escape Las Vegas with a 30-27 season-opening victory

UNLV at a glance

Bobby Hauck's teams never lost more than four games in a season during a seven-year tenure in which he cemented Montana as one of the premier programs in the FCS. But Hauck hasn't come close to translating that to FBS-level success with what was an already vastly troubled UNLV program.

The Rebels have won only two games in each of Hauck's first three seasons at the helm, adding to UNLV's woeful run of 18 seasons without a winning record (56-156 in that stretch). It's time for Hauck's squad to show a glimmer of turnaround potential or UNLV may slip closer to making its third coaching change in less than a decade.

But does Hauck have the tools to jumpstart the resurrection of a program that has only become increasingly lost? Proven depth is another issue, but UNLV does return nine starters on both sides of the ball, including starting quarterback Nick Sherry and running back Tim Cornett.

Hauck has new coordinators running his offense and defense, but for the most part, these are the same Rebels who took the Gophers to triple overtime a year ago. But it would take a big time performance under the shine of TCF Bank Stadium not seen from UNLV in Hauck's tenure to end the nation's second longest road losing streak (22 games) against a clearly improved Gopher squad.

Two Rebels to keep an eye on

QB Nick Sherry (2012 -- 12 starts, 53.1% completion rate, 212 ypg, 16 TD, 17 INT)

UNLV gave Sherry a trial by fire a year ago by giving him the reins of the offense as a redshirt freshman. Sherry has shown the talent, but suspect decision-making (17 interceptions) and questionable weapons at his disposal made his debut season a struggle.

RB Tim Cornett (2012 -- 13 starts, 1,232 rushing yards, 242 attempts, seven TD)

Owner of 1,232 yards last season, Cornett is one of the Rebels' clear standouts. The junior running back is a key component in getting UNLV's offense going, and Sherry needs him to continue to be a centerpiece. Cornett tallied 127 yards off 25 carries on the Gophers in 2012.

Three keys for the Gophers

Send a message

As "U" players and coaches will consistently reiterate, the Gophers' spirited revitalization against Texas Tech at the Meineke Car Care Bowl last December, despite the disappointing end result, has served as a benchmark for the squad's potential to show the tangible progress that must be seen in Year 3 under Jerry Kill.

The Gophers can't take a step back. They have to prove their power run-based offense can replicate the cohesiveness displayed against Red Raiders. UNLV's defense will provide plenty of openings. It is critical the Gophers show they can dominate a lesser opponent from end to end. Otherwise, the always lingering skepticism that always surrounds the Gophers will ramp up quickly.

Defensive stand

The Gophers were caught off-guard early on in their first meeting with UNLV when the Rebels, a team that rarely took snaps under center, chose to slow down their offense. Don't expect the same issue on Thursday. New Rebels offensive coordinator Timm Rosenbach favored up-tempo, 10-11-man personnel schemes while at Montana in 2012. The Gophers are expecting to see a lot of the same things from Rosenbach at UNLV.

The "U" defense has strengthened considerably since it surrendered 27 points to the Rebels. In that game, the Gophers' secondary had one of its most struggle-filled outings of the season, but the unit is now arguably the strongest aspect of the defense. Star defensive end Ra'Shede Hageman and his D-line teammates are going to have a major opportunity to haunt Sherry and the Rebels' offense.

Find an offensive identity

Philip Nelson, a seven-game starter as a freshman, had an up-and-down start to fall camp, but by the two-week mark he was garnering high praise from the coaching staff that the "light bulb has clicked on." When you see or talk with him at practice, there's no question Nelson's demeanor and confidence has been upgraded. But now he must translate that into sustained game day success. Nelson doesn't need a career game Thursday, though it wouldn't take much given his small sample size, but he has to show command of the huddle and the skill to unlock a passing game that was sorely lacking last season

Numbers game

2008: The last year the Gophers opened a season at home, defeating Kill's former team, Northern Illinois, 31-27, at their old confines at the Metrodome.

7-3: Gophers' all-time record against the Mountain West conference.

Calling it

Gophers 31, UNLV 13

If the Gophers are indeed on the upswing, traversing the Big Ten's easiest nonconference schedule undefeated is a must. That starts with establishing needed momentum against UNLV. On paper, the Rebels look to be better than their two-win former selves, but they are still stuck on the bottom rung of the FBS ladder.

Thursday could serve as the first showcase for a budding "U" defense and a proving ground for a new-look linebacker corps. The defensive support will be there. Nelson and the Gophers' offense just have to reciprocate.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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