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2015 MAC football non-conference previews: UNLV Rebels

The Rebels are headed to DeKalb for their season opener.

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

The Northern Illinois Huskies open their 2015 campaign with a familiar foe from last season, as the UNLV Rebels will come to Huskie Stadium September 5th to complete the home-and-home series.

The game played last year was a lot closer than some thought it would be, with NIU sneaking out of the desert with a close win. The Huskies took control early, building up a 28-5 lead early in the third quarter. But over a 15-minute span, the Rebels scored four touchdowns while holding the Huskies to just two field goals and tied the game at 34 apiece. Da'Ron Brown the gave NIU the lead for good when he caught a 54-yard TD pass with 8:23 to go and then Cameron Stingily added a score with under two minutes remaining, sealing the win, 48-34.

This year's game could be very similar as both teams lost a star running back and receiver, but return most of their talent from the previous year. There is one big difference though: this season the Rebels have a new head coach. After Bobby Hauck resigned the day before UNLV's final game last year, the school hired Tony Sanchez, who's only previous experience is high school football.

Sanchez was a very successful high school head coach. He boasts an 85-5 record and has won Nevada's 4A title the past five years! This will be Sanchez's first collegiate game, so it will be interesting to see how he handles the jump from high school to college.

The Rebels lost their big-time wideout, Devante Davis (who torched NIU for 150 yards and two TDs last year) and their leading rusher, Shaquille Murray-Lawrence. Davis only appeared in eight games for UNLV last season but had 34 grabs for 599 yards and four touchdowns. Murray-Lawrence led all Rebels with 552 rushing yards and nine scores in just nine games.

But they have found more than capable replacements for those missing pieces. Another Devante took the reigns at wideout last season. Devante Boyd, the 6-1 sophomore, had a huge freshman season, leading the team in receptions, yards, and touchdowns with 65 catches for 980 yards and four scores. And Keith Whitely has shown to be a strong replacement at halfback as well, as last year he was second on the team with 502 rushing yards and a pair of touchdowns.

Last year Blake Decker nearly threw for 400 yards against the Huskies' porous defense (24/42, 397 yards, two TDs), but struggled for most of the season. He finished the year with 2886 yards, 15 TDs, 18 INTs and added 366 yards and five scores rushing the ball as well.

Last year the Rebs offense was pretty ineffective, as they 105th in rushing (129.2 yards/game) and 107th in points (21.9 points/game). But they played a lot of young players and still managed to keep up with NIU for the most part. After a year of progress, this is not an offense the Huskies should look past. Especially since they throw the ball really well, which the Huskies defense has always struggled with.

UNLV's defense was actually just as bad as their offense, as they allowed nearly 40 points per game (38.5 points allowed/game, 116th in the NCAA). But they return five of their top-6 tacklers from last year, including their top two: Tau Lotulelei, a 6-1 junior LB, and Peni Vea, a 6-1 senior DB.

Vea is a beast. Last year he had 88 tackles (56 solo), 7.5 TFL, 3.5 sacks, 2 pass breakups, a pick, and forced a fumble. Lotulelei, however, lead everyone in tackles and TFL with 99 and 10.5, respectively.

As a whole however, the defense only forced 18 turnovers all season and only had 23 sacks. They only 219.6 passing yards per game, which is pretty good, but really struggled against the run. Opponents averaged 293.8 rushing yards per game and had 37 rushing TDs (to only 25 passing TDs), which is good news for NIU, who has been one of the premier rushing schools in the NCAA.

Overall UNLV is 7-8 against the MAC, but 0-4 against NIU. This September, we'll see if the Huskies can find the same outcome, in spite of the new head coach and new look.