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Rebels relish healthy outlook

MINNEAPOLIS — Mark Wallington, UNLV’s sports information director for football, asked coach Bobby Hauck for the season’s initial injury report to hand out to the media on Monday.

Hauck didn’t have any names to put on the sheet.

UNLV takes a remarkably healthy team into tonight’s season opener at Minnesota. The Big Ten Network (Cox Channel 312) will televise the 4 p.m. PDT game.

Considering how banged up the Rebels were at the end of last season when they stumbled to the finish line, the importance of being so healthy can’t be overstated.

“It’s kind of exciting,” Hauck said. “You’d like to (say) that’s by design, how we practiced, how we prepared, how we were able to do it. I’d like to give credit to our smarts, but it’s probably luck in some regards.”

UNLV did suffer one injury at Monday night’s practice when starting linebacker Tau Lotulelei hurt his left ankle or foot. Hauck said via text message Wednesday he expected the redshirt freshman to play.

If Lotulelei suits up, that would boost UNLV’s chances of upsetting the two-touchdown favorite Golden Gophers and ending its 22-game road losing streak.

The Rebels almost beat Minnesota last season, falling 30-27 in triple overtime.

This is a veteran Rebels team that returns nine starters on each side of the ball but also a program that has won just two games in each of the past three seasons and seven of the previous nine years.

The Gophers operate a run-based offense, with Philip Nelson calling the plays at quarterback. Nelson, who started the final seven games last season, completed just 49.3 percent of his passes for 873 yards and eight touchdowns, with eight interceptions. He also rushed for 184 yards.

Donnell Kirkwood returns at running back after rushing for 926 yards and six touchdowns, and expect the Gophers also to give the ball to Rodrick Williams Jr., who finished with 261 yards and two TDs.

Minnesota needs to improve an offense that averaged 22.1 points per game last season, scoring just 13 in regulation against UNLV. The Gophers also averaged 321.4 yards.

They went to their first bowl in three years mostly because of a defense that allowed 24.7 points and 358.6 yards. However, the top two tacklers from that team, Troy Stoudermire and Mike Rallis, are gone.

If this game was at a neutral site or in Las Vegas, oddsmakers probably would give the Rebels more respect. But it’s difficult to discount how badly they struggle when they board a plane.

That was proven at the end of last season when UNLV went to Colorado State and Hawaii as the slight favorite in each game and got blown out both times.

The Rebels also were a beaten-up team by that point, with quarterback Nick Sherry, running back Tim Cornett and offensive left tackle Brett Boyko dealing with various injuries.

“I’ve been 100 percent for a while now,” Cornett said. “I’ve fallen on (the shoulder), tackled on it, I’ve been pushed on it, I’ve pass-protected on it. I’ve done everything I would do in a game.”

Sherry called having the team healthy “huge.”

“It gives you a little confidence, but you’ve got to be able to play through injury like you don’t have an injury,” Sherry said.

Hauck tried to avoid injuries in training camp by using spring practices for the hardest hitting.

It’s a national trend, even in the NFL, where coaches back off in preseason because they don’t want to lose key players when the games count.

“Where the rubber meets the road, we better tackle well on Thursday night,” Hauck said. “We’ve got a good tackling football team. I think we’ve become a team that tackles pretty well in space. That needs to show. That’s the calculated risk you take by not doing the live stuff.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.

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