The long wait is finally over! Fall camp has been completed, depth charts are in place, and the 2015 college football season is ready to kickoff. The defending Mid-American Conference Champion Northern Illinois Huskies will open with a rematch of a 48-34 Northern Illinois triumph in the Nevada desert last season. The game will be played Saturday at 7:30 EST in DeKalb and can be seen on the CBS Sports Network.
Much like last season's contest, the Huskies (-24) enter the game as a big favorite to beat the Rebels. New head coach Tony Sanchez will be coaching his first collegiate game, as he replaces former coach Bobby Huack, who resigned after a disappointing 2-11 2014 season.
Sanchez was wildly successful at nearby Bishop Gorman High School. The 40 year old posted an 85-5 overall record in his six years as head coach, as well as four consecutive state championships. FBS football is quite a jump from high school football, and Sanchez has enlisted the help of two experienced coordinators to assist in the transition.
Defensive coordinator Kent Baer brings 29 years of FBS coaching experience to Sanchez's staff, including stops at Stanford, California, and Notre Dame. Most recently, Baer spent the last two seasons serving as the defensive coordinator in the PAC 12 Conference at Colorado.
Barney Cotton served as interim head coach for Nebraska in last season's Holiday Bowl, and brings a wealth of experience in his own right as the new offensive coordinator for UNLV. With stops at New Mexico State and Iowa State as offensive coordinator, Cotton served as the run game coordinator and offensive line coach under head coach Bo Pelini at Nebraska.
Returning senior quarterback Blake Decker will look to ease the transition for the new coaching staff. The preseason Second Team All-Mountain West Conference selection by Lindy's completed 24 passes for 397 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the 2014 meeting between the two schools. Decker will look to decrease his turnovers after throwing only 15 touchdowns compared to 18 interceptions last season. Sophomore pass catcher Devonte Boyd looks to be Decker's favorite target this season. Boyd hauled in 34 passes for 599 yards and 4 scores during his freshman campaign.
A staple of Nebraska football under Bo Pelini and Barney Cotton was running the football, so one should expect a heavy dose of ground and pound from UNLV this season. The Rebels return nearly all of their production on the ground from last season, with Shaquille Murray-Lawrence (552 yards, 9 TDs), Keith Whitely (504 yards, 2 TDs), Decker (366 yards, 5 TDs) and George Naufahu (210 yards, TD) all back for 2015. However, after averaging less than four yards per carry as a team last year, Cotton will look to improve their efficiency on the ground this season.
On the defensive side of the ball, Kent Baer will inherit an extremely young defensive line, with only a pair of reserve linemen in Dominic Baldwin and Sonny Sanitoa returning from a group of seven which played last season. All of UNLV's linebackers and stud safety Peni Vea return, but a young group of defensive linemen against Northern Illinois' run heavy attack could be a recipe for disaster.
For the Huskies, Drew Hare returns at quarterback and looks to build on a solid first season as starting quarterback. Hare made his first career start against UNLV, and posted arguably his best game of the 2014 season. Hare was 18/28 for 285 yards and a pair of touchdowns through the air, including a 54 yard bomb to Da'Ron Brown in the fourth quarter to break a 34 all deadlock. Hare also added 74 yards and a score with his feet.
Northern Illinois has to replace Cameron Stingily (102 rushing yards, 2 TDs) and Brown (6 catches, 138 yards, TD) who both made huge impacts on the game last season. Joel Bouagnon, Keith Harris Jr., and Jordan Huff look to fill Stingily's shoes, and Tommylee Lewis is back from a leg injury which sidelined him for all of the 2014 season and should have a big senior campaign.
A name to look out for which you may not have heard of (although if you have been reading HustleBelt as you should, you have) is wide receiver Kenny Golladay. The St. Rita product and North Dakota transfer has been as advertised in fall camp and looks to make an immediate impact in DeKalb.
With Golladay and fellow big bodied wide reciever Juwan Brescacin on the outside to go along with Lewis, Aregeros Turner, and Chad Beebe playing in the slot, the Northern Illinois pass catchers can present serious matchup problems for the Vegas defense.
On the defensive side, returning safety Marlon Moore and All-MAC cornerback Paris Logan combined for 14 tackles and an interception for NIU during last year's victory. Defensive end Perez Ford and tackle William Lee each posted a sack.
Decker, as evident by his nearly 400 yards passing, had his way at times with the young Northern Illinois secondary, and the likes of Albert Smalls, Anthony Brooks, and Shawun Lurry look to have a much better effort this season. Freshman linebacker Renard Cheren is expected to make his first career start in place of suspended Rasheen Lemon.
With a new coaching staff in place for UNLV, do not be surprised if the Huskies struggle with the Rebels early on. A new staff means a lack of film on current personnel running the schemes Sanchez, Baer, and Cotton are looking to implement. However, a long road trip from Las Vegas to DeKalb combined with Northern Illinois' running attack against UNLV's young front four should prove to be too much for the Rebs to overcome.