The Northern Illinois Huskies will head to Sin City to face the UNLV Rebels for the fourth time ever. The Huskies have won the previous three meetings, with the most recent being 19 years ago - a 62-14 beatdown October, 7 1995. The Rebels are the only non-conference team the Huskies play that had a winning record last season, but UNLV is not quite known for its football team.
UNLV Rebels 2013 Season Rewind:
The 2013 season was a great year for UNLV, at least, compared to what they're used to. The Rebels managed a 7-6 record - it was the most wins in a season, and first time they finished a season above .500, since 2000 when the Rebels won eight. However, It didn't start off well, as they got blown out by Minnesota and Arizona by a combined score of 109-36. They would win five of their next six games, losing only to Fresno State. They split their last four games - losing two and winning their last two - and made it to the Heart of Dallas Bowl against North Texas, which they lost.
Hey Reb! is the official UNLV mascot. He's a mountain man with a huge grey beard who wears a grey hat and a jersey with the number 57 on it (for 1957 - the year the university was founded). It wasn't until 1983 that Hey Reb! was first seen but since then he has done a lot, including two "This is SportsCenter" commercials, and finishing second in the 2004 Capital One Mascot Challenge.
The Rebels play in the dangerous Mountain West Conference. UNLV is in the West division along with Fresno State, Hawaii, Nevada, San Diego State, and San Jose State. The Huskies are 8-8 all time against MW opponents, with wins against San Jose State, Nevada, Fresno (3), and UNLV (3).
UNLV has called Sam Boyd Stadium, in Whitney, NV, home since 1971 when the stadium opened. However, the Rebels have had a tough time winning there, as they only have won 48.1% of their home games (the Rebs are 99-107-2 in 208 home games). It currently seats 36,800 and has a DURAPlay turf surface. Originally called Las Vegas Stadium, it got Sam Boyd's (a major hotel/casino figure) name in 1984, when it was called the Sam Boyd Silver Bowl. They later dropped the Silver Bowl part in 1994.
Last Bowl Appearance:
As I mentioned earlier, the Rebels made a bowl game last season. They played, and lost 14-36 to, North Texas in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on January 1, 2014. It was only the fourth bowl game they ever went to (the first since 2000) and also the first they ever lost.
Bobby Hauck is now in his fifth year at the helm of UNLV. Hauck was the the winningest coach in FCS history when he left Montana in 2009 and won Big Sky Coach of the Year in '06, '07, and '09. Overall he boasts a 93-55 record, however, nearly all of those victories were at Montana (80-17). He's struggled in the desert, going only 13-38 in four years.
Five Key Players:
Nick Sherry - junior QB (6'5, 235lbs)
Devante Davis - senior WR (6'3, 210lbs)
Peni Vea - junior DB (6'1, 200lbs)
Tajh Hasson - senior DB (6'1, 195lbs)
Shaquille Murray-Lawrence - senior HB (5'8, 180lbs)
The Rebels were pretty good last year on offense. They averaged 172.5 rushing yards per game, just under 240 passing yards and 30 points per game. When it came to scoring, they were balanced as well, 27 passing and 25 rushing TDs.
However, they lost their starting QB and HB from last season. So instead of facing Caleb Herring (who threw for 2718 yards, 24 TDs, 5 INT, 63.2% and ran for an additional 346 yards and five TDs) the Huskies will face Nick Sherry, who didn't play much last season but wasn't good when he did play. Sherry completed just 54% of his passes for 334 yards and three touchdowns, while throwing five interceptions. He did play a lot in 2012 and his stats weren't much better - 2544 yards, 16 TD, 17 INT, 53%. He's also not a running threat - like at all.
Also, instead of dealing with former HB Tim Cornett (1280 yards and 15 TDs last season) running the ball, Shaq Murray-Lawrence will take over (his name is too long, so I'm abbreviating it to SML). He is a small, shifty back that can give teams problems. Last season SML scored twice and went for 418 in just 47 tries, thats 8.9 yards per carry! Frankly, I'd rather deal with Cornett, who was a bigger, power runner.
The Rebels do have their leading receiver back, and boy is he a HUGE threat. At 6'3, Devante Davis is going to cause problems for nearly any secondary. Last season he hauled in 87 receptions for 1290 yards and 14 TDs. That's nearly a third of their receiving yards and half of their passing touchdowns. Senior Marcus Sullivan was their number two receiver and he only had 45 grabs, 505 yards, and five scores.
UNLV lost four of their top five tacklers, but they still have a great secondary led by Peni Vea. Last season Vea led the team with 108 tackles, had three TFL, and two INTs as well as breaking up two passes. Tajh Hasson, a senior DB, will be joining Vea in the secondary. The 6'1 DB had 49 tackles, 1.5 TFL, a sack, and a pick which might not sound that great...but he also had 11 pass break ups and led the team with four forced fumbles, so he knows how to make sure receiver don't get their hands on the ball/keep the ball.
As a whole however, the Rebels were only decent. They allowed 32 points per game (21 passing TDs, 28 rushing TDs), 217.7 passing yards per game and, luckily for NIU, 215.5 rushing yards per game. If NIU is going to score, the second quarter will be the best time, as UNLV game up 151 (of the 414 points) in the second quarter alone. They also only had 21 sacks as a team and allowed nearly half of all third downs to be converted as 48% of third-down attempts (99/208) were successful against the Rebs last season.
Nolan Kohorst, the Rebel kicker last season, is gone. But he only hit 10 of his 19 field goal attempts, so who ever the new kicker is, doesn't have much to live up to. There are only three kickers on the UNLV roster - none of whom have attempted a field goal before at the collegiate level. Logan Yunker, the Rebels punter, is one of those three possible kickers. As a punter he has done well - averaging 41.8 yards per punt with 16 inside the 20-yard line and a long of 73!
As far as returning goes, the Rebels averaged 23 yards per kick return, but had no TDs. Their foes last season averaged just 22 yards per return, but had a long of 98, which was returned for a score. Punt returning was pretty much non-existent for them as they averaged just 3-yards per punt return, while opponents gained nearly 10 yards per punt return and had a long of 71-yards, which was a TD.
Devante Davis could give the Huskie defense some problems. However, it isn't anything Marlon Moore and Dechane Durante shouldn't be able to handle. NIU's LBs and D-line should be able to keep SML in check for most of the game, and Sherry has shown he makes his fair share of mistakes - the Huskies should be able to get at least one turnover from him. Overall, NIU's offense has a lot more speed than UNLV's defense and, with the great run game the Huskies have and the lack of run defense UNLV had last year, NIU should literally run past them. Even a new QB, who will be in his third game by now, should be settled enough to find Tommylee Lewis and Da'Ron Brown through the air.