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MOUNTAIN WEST PREVIEW, FIRST UP UNLV WHO’S HOME FIELD IS 7 MILES EAST OF VR SPORTS OFFICES. Things have quickly returned to normal in...

college football free pickMOUNTAIN WEST PREVIEW, FIRST UP UNLV WHO’S HOME FIELD IS 7 MILES EAST OF VR SPORTS OFFICES.

Things have quickly returned to normal in Las Vegas, which survived destruction in the new Godzilla movie. But that hissing sound you might have heard in the background this spring had nothing to do with the cinema, rather all of the air escaping the balloon at UNLV (SUR 7-6, PSR 8-5) after the Rebels were ruled ineligible for 2014 bowl competition by the NCAA due to subpar APR (Academic Progress Rate) scores.

Mind you, for more than a decade, that sort of news would have either seemed redundant or unnecessary, because the Rebs had not been bowling since John Robinson’s 2000 team. Until a year ago, that is, when the beleaguered HC Bobby Hauck pulled a Mariano Rivera-like save of his coaching career out of his hat with a rare UNLV postseason invitation. Now, however, this APR development and resultant bowl ban, which wouldn’t have been a blip on the UNLV radar the previous 13 years because the Rebs never went bowling when eligible, comes on the heels of the berth in the Dallas Bowl and some long-absent momentum for the program.

LATE NOTE: NCAA LIFTS UNLV BOWL BAN UPON REVISED APR RESULTS (6/26)

This recent lifeline for Hauck came about after he looked to be more of a lame duck than Eric Cantor in the current session of the U.S. House of Representatives. After three straight 2-win seasons, Hauck was on the thinnest of ice last fall, especially after the AD who hired him, and the only one in Vegas besides perhaps Wayne Newton who thought Hauck should return for a fourth year, AD Jim Livengood, tendered his resignation last May. Fortunately for Hauck, he was on good terms with Livengood’s interim successor, Tina Kunzer-Murphy, who had recently served as Executive Director of the Las Vegas Bowl. Nonetheless, word from MW sources was that school prexy Neil Smatresk was ready to hit the eject button on Hauck if the Rebs lost their first three games of the 2013 campaign. Which looked to be a pretty good bet after UNLV was smoked by both Minnesota and Arizona, allowing more than 50 points to each, in the first two games of the season. Then, falling behind Central Michigan 21-0 in the 2nd Q of Game Three, Hauck seemed ready to be fitted for a noose by halftime.

Circumstance, not calculation, would then amazingly save Hauck. Desperate for an answer, Hauck benched struggling soph QB Nick Sherry after his slow start vs. the Chippewas, and rolled the dice with former starter, sr. Caleb Herring, one of the last holdovers from the long-ago Mike Sanford regime and who had been Hauck’s starter in 2011 before being beaten out by Sherry in 2012. Hauck had thought so little of Herring the year before that his former QB was being used as a wide receiver. But with no other viable option at QB, Hauck summoned Herring to relieve Sherry. The coach, perhaps hours from losing his job, had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Herring entered with the score 7-0 in CMU’s favor, and the score quickly mushroomed to 21-0. Then, something happened. The offense suddenly responded to Herring, who appeared cool and composed in the pocket and in control of the proceedings. UNLV got on the board just before halftime as Herring led a 76-yard drive in six plays to cut the deficit to 21-7 with a 12-yard TD pass to WR Devante Davis. All a prequel to a memorable second half in which Herring would toss two more TD passes, including a 42-yarder to Davis to tie the score late in the 3rd Q, before the Rebs would wind up 31-21 winners. It was the biggest comeback in school history, and Herring was the reason, finishing with 24 completions in 28 attempts, including those 3 TD passes!

Herring had effectively saved the season that night at Sam Boyd Stadium, and stayed in the lineup the rest of the campaign by keeping drives alive with his many scrambles and dart-like throws, several of those to the long-striding Davis, who caught 87 passes for 1290 yards and 14 TDs. The more-inquisitive UNLV fans began to wonder what on earth Hauck might have been thinking to keep Herring on the bench in the first place.

The Rebs would win 7 of their 10 reg.-season games with Herring to qualify for the Dallas Bowl, where they would lose in the venerable Cotton Bowl to regional flavor North Texas, playing only 40 or so miles from home. Continuing Hauck’s good luck, ally Kunzer-Murphy was eventually named the full-time AD, and Hauck got a contract upgrade that previous AD Livengood did not provide the year before. Moreover, school president Smatresk, the man who was reportedly close to firing Hauck, left for a similar post at North Texas.

But did the program really turn the corner? The schedule would eventually break just right last fall for UNLV, especially with the Mountain in a weakened state, and the likes of Hawaii, Nevada, and Air Force, all Reb victims, enduring uncommonly awful years. Now, Herring and record-setting RB Tim Cornett have departed, and that was before the APR news. Can Hauck keep the ship afloat?

With the former starting QB Nick Sherry having disappeared like the Invisible Man last fall once Herring got into the lineup, Reb fans can be excused if wondering whether Sherry still is enrolled at school. He is, and was on the field for spring work battling it out with Scottsdale Community College transfer Blake Decker for the starting job, one which Hauck says will not be decided until fall. MW sources, however, believe the mature Decker, who has already served a 2-year LDS mission in Mexico and a prolific juco passer, will likely win the job. Lanky WR Davis, a consensus NFL prospect, and whippet-like Marcus Sullivan are returning starters at wideout spots.

If Hauck has developed a something of a trademark at UNLV, it is an often suicidal resolve to run the football, something the Rebs tried almost to their detriment in Hauck’s first few seasons. But the payoff finally came last season when UNLV was able to move the ball rather consistently on the ground, ranking a respectable 61st nationally at 173 ypg, behind its big forward wall that returns four starters led by honors candidates LT Brett Boyko and LG Cameron Jefferson. Explosive school career-rush leading RB Tim Cornett (in the Arizona Cardinals’ camp this summer) has departed, which is a potential concern because his likely replacement, Northwestern transfer Adonis Smith, left school in spring, leaving scatback Shaquille Murray-Lawrence, who gained a staggering 9 ypc on just 47 totes last season, as the probable featured back. Whether the smallish Murray-Lawrence (5-8 and 180 lbs.) is durable enough for heavy-duty work, as was Cornett, remains to be seen.

Another concern for Hauck is at PK, where long-time starter Nolan Kohorst has graduated, and expected replacement local recruit Conor Perkins instead informed the staff in spring that he was going to take his LDS mission. Auditions for Kohorst’s replacement will continue into fall camp.

In context, the Rebel stop unit also progressed somewhat a year ago, improving from roadkill status to the point where only the rush defense ranked in triple digits nationally in the four main defensive categories (rushing, passing, total, and scoring defense). Not much, but it was a start, coinciding with the appointment of Bobby’s brother Tim, a former NFL DB and pro assistant coach, as coordinator. Tim prefers a 4-3 base defense that features a collection of DEs, led by Jordan Sparkman and Sonny Sanitoa, although they would combine for just three sacks last fall. The Haucks hit the juco ranks hard as they looked for immediate help at the DT spots in order to shore up the leaky rush “D” that allowed over 215 ypg. The Haucks will also have to find a new collection of LBs after graduation ripped that position group asunder. The strength of the platoon, such as it is, is likely in the secondary, where three starters return, including jr. SS Peni Vea, who had a team-high 108 tackles in 2013 (you know what they say about defenses where the strong safety leads the team in tackles).

Spread-wise, UNLV has been an interesting read in the Hauck years. The Rebels were a full-blown go-against on the road, where they had lost 21 straight and covered just 3 for Hauck until a win at New Mexico sparked three wins and covers in a four road-game stretch. Hauck’s Rebs have always offered good value as a dog at Sam Boyd Stadium, sporting a 13-5 mark in that role since 2010.

The revised NCAA ruling on bowl eligibility (6/26) has reinstated the bowl carrot for the Rebels, but they are still minus 2013 catalyst Caleb Herring, who fueled turnaround in 2013, and we suspect that UNLV falls back beneath .500 this season. Bobby Hauck, however, can now probably survive that sort of a dip, which he couldn’t have done a year ago. Progress can be measured in such small steps at a place such as UNLV.

Vincent Rizzo

College Football / College Basketball Handicapper. 2011 won 74%, 2012 won 72% 2015 SPECIAL. CALL, 877.WIN.ATS9 EMAIL,V@VincentRizzoSports.com

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