Minn. football starts season

Published 9:52 am Thursday, August 29, 2013

MINNEAPOLIS — When Minnesota played at UNLV last year, the Gophers figured they had the summer weather in this series out of the way.

But when the two teams meet again Thursday night to open the season, it could feel a little bit like the desert. Temperatures have soared this week in the Twin Cities area, and forecasts have put the 6 p.m. kickoff right around 90 degrees.

So the Gophers will be substituting liberally to keep their guys as fresh as possible.

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“If it’s 91-plus, we’ll go deep,” Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. “We’ll have to.”

In 2012, the 8 p.m. start in Nevada was 86 degrees.

The Rebels have seven opponents who played in 2012 bowl games on the schedule this year, including nonconference foes Minnesota, Arizona and Central Michigan. Geography alone should make the Gophers the most difficult of those for UNLV. The Rebels have lost 22 straight games on the road, since a win Oct. 24, 2009, at New Mexico.

Here are five things to know about the season opener for these teams:

CLOSE CALL LAST FALL: Minnesota was a touchdown-plus favorite last year as only the third Big Ten team to visit Las Vegas, but the Rebels led in the fourth quarter and took them to three overtimes before falling 30-27.

This time, they’ve switched sites for the first season opener in TCF Bank Stadium history. Since their open-air facility opened on campus in 2009, the Gophers had started on the road each time. The Aug. 29 game date also is the earliest ever for Minnesota.

UNLV is 2-12 against current members of the Big Ten, with the only victories coming against Wisconsin in 1986 and 2003.

THE HEAT IS ON HAUCK: The pressure to win at UNLV, a program that posted only one winning record over the last 18 years and none since 2000, isn’t close to what it’s like in the Big Ten. Still, Rebels coach Bobby Hauck is clearly under scrutiny this fall, with exactly two victories in each of his first three seasons in charge of the Rebels.

After leading Montana to an 80-17 mark and three appearances in the FCS national championship game over seven years there, Hauck is 6-32 at UNLV. He added a couple of notable names to his staff for this critical year to help him. Timm Rosenbach, once a star at Washington State who played briefly in the NFL, is the new offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Tim Hauck, the head coach’s younger brother who played safety for 13 years in the NFL, is the defensive coordinator and cornerbacks coach.

NELSON’S TARGETS: Everyone on the first team offense for Minnesota started at least one game last season, but wide receiver is the most unsettled position. Juniors Isaac Fruechte and Derrick Engel will be sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson’s top two pass catchers, with tight end Drew Goodger also a primary option.

On defense, there will be at least four first-time starters: defensive end Theiren Cockran, middle linebacker Damien Wilson, weak side linebacker James Manuel and cornerback Eric Murray.

RETURNING REBELS: Of the 12 teams in the Mountain West Conference, UNLV has the most returning starters this season with nine each on offense and defense, plus kicker Nolan Kohorst. Quarterback Nick Sherry passed for 2,544 yards in 2012, the fourth-most among freshmen in MWC history, but he also threw 17 interceptions.

Running back Tim Cornett is the biggest standout, after rushing for 1,232 yards last year. He needs 701 more this season to pass Mike Thomas and become the all-time leader in UNLV history.

Defense has long been the program’s biggest problem, though, and last year was more of the same. The Rebels allowed 32.6 points and 445.2 yards per game, 95th and 98th respectively among the 120 teams at the FBS level.

KICKING COMPETITION: Special teams have been under close evaluation by the Gophers, who will have new players in almost all of the key spots.

Marcus Jones is the kickoff returner, replacing Troy Stoudermire, who set the NCAA record for career yardage in that role. Senior Chris Hawthorne is the kicker again after getting hurt and losing the job to Jordan Wettstein in 2011.

Australian junior Christian Eldred could keep the punter position, but he could be usurped by freshman Ryan Santoso. Or sophomore Peter Mortell. Or senior Dan Orseske. Seriously. The Gophers listed all four of them on their depth chart for the game, preferring to keep the winner of the competition secret until the first time they find themselves out of field goal range in fourth and long. Orseske was the punter in 2010 and 2011 but lost the job to Eldred last season.