Dallas, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - Back in the postseason for the first time since 1994, the UNLV Rebels try to make the most of their opportunity as they match up against the North Texas Mean Green in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on New Year's Day.
Hailing from the Mountain West Conference, which just this season expanded to 12 teams and added a conference title game, the Rebels had been downright awful the last several years, winning no more than two games in each of the previous three campaigns. Despite the lackluster showings, head coach Bobby Hauck continued to get the support he needed in order to build a growing program and the result is an invitation to a bowl game that has been a long time coming.
The Rebels appeared to be heading towards another disappointing campaign when they opened 2013 with back-to-back defeats against Minnesota and Arizona, but then the team ripped through an unprecedented four consecutive victories and five of the next six. The squad did lose some momentum with setbacks against San Jose State and Utah State in the first couple weeks of November, but rebounded with triumphs over Air Force and San Diego State, outscoring the Falcons and Aztecs by a combined 86-40.
Even before the win against SDSU, Hauck received yet another contract extension, so making it to the postseason was vindication for all his hard work.
"Obviously we are thrilled to be playing in the Heart of Dallas Bowl on New Year's Day, which is the biggest day in college football. For UNLV to be participating on that day is a huge deal for our university and our program. I'm excited about it."
As for the Mean Green, they too had a shaky start to the season with three defeats in five tries, but beginning the second week of October there was almost no stopping NT and head coach Dan McCarney. Outside of a 21-13 setback against Texas-San Antonio leading up to Thanksgiving, the second half of the season was nearly perfect for the program.
Prior to the loss to the Roadrunners, North Texas rattled off five straight wins and then came back after the defeat to UTSA to crush Tulsa on the road in a 42-10 romp at the end of November.
"This a validation for all the hard work put in by this team and the leadership of this senior class," McCarney said of the bowl invitation. "I can't give enough thanks to Brant Ringler from the Heart of Dallas Bowl and Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky for the confidence they have shown in this team and the effort they have put in during this process."
Back in the postseason for the first time since 2004, the Mean Green have not captured a bowl victory since topping Cincinnati in the New Orleans Bowl in 2002 by a score of 24-19. That particular bowl had been a steady landing spot for North Texas which played in the event four straight years, but only won once. just under a decade ago the Mean Green bowed to Southern Miss, 31-10, in the contest. Overall, UNT is just 2-5 in postseason appearances dating back to the 1946 Optimist Bowl versus Pacific.
UNLV has played in a total of just two bowl games previously, winning both as the squad took out Toledo in the 1984 California Bowl by a score of 30-13 and then a decade later topping Central Michigan in the Las Vegas Bowl, 52-24.
The Rebels have won all four of the previous meetings between the programs, the most recent of those coming in 2000 when UNLV blanked the Mean Green at home, 38-0.
Formerly known as the TicketCity Bowl, this is just the fourth year for this bowl, with Oklahoma State crushing Purdue in last year's meeting, 52-14.
For a UNLV offense that is generating 31.2 ppg, the leader is quarterback Caleb Herring, who returned to his natural position early on in the season in order to guide the squad to new heights. Coming in for Nick Sherry, Herring has completed 64.3 percent of his pass attempts for 210.2 ypg and 22 touchdowns. More importantly, Herring managed games, knowing when to take chances down the field and when to plan for the next play.
Herring, who threw just four interceptions on 364 attempts, also scored five times on the ground and while he was certainly helpful in that area, the rushing attacked belonged to and continues to be dominated by Tim Cornett. One of the top rushers in program history, Cornett galloped for 1,251 yards and scored 15 of the unit's 25 rushing touchdowns.
While Cornett churns out the yards and points on the ground, Herring looks for key receivers like Devante Davis to make a major impact down field. Logging almost twice as many receptions as any of his teammates, Davis finished with 77 grabs for 1,194 yards and 14 TDs.
Unfortunately for Herring and the offense, there were quite a number of times when the UNLV defense put the squad in a bind because it had trouble slowing down the opposition. The team was torched for 25 rushing touchdowns and 221.8 ypg on the ground, as well as another 19 aerial scores and 214.5 ypg through the air.
Of the team's 20 sacks in 2013, 4.5 were produced by Tyler Gaston as he finished fifth on the team in overall tackles with 46 and was one of several performers with at least five tackles for loss. The team leader in sacks, Gaston almost sounded disappointed to be playing on the first day of January.
"For me I kind of thought of it from a different perspective. I usually bring in the New Year with my family and I was kind of hurt about that. But then I thought I may not see these guys anymore after this year and what better way to bring it in then with my new family that I got a chance to grow and mature with for four years."
Gaston and the rest of the UNLV defense will be facing off against a North Texas offense that takes a lot of pride in running the ball and beating up the opposition at the point of attack. As a unit, NT generated 184.0 ypg on the ground and scored a total of 28 touchdowns, 11 of which were tallied by Brandin Byrd who ran for 1,023 yards and averaged 5.6 yards per carry.
Handling the passing duties was Derek Thompson as he rivaled Herring for accuracy (.639), but while he accounted for 220.0 ypg, he tossed just 14 TDs, against 13 interceptions. Darnell Smith emerged as the leading receiver in terms of total catches with 65, leading to 716 yards, but all of that work resulted in just three trips to the end zone. Brelan Chancellor stretched his 47 catches into a team-best 718 yards and four TDs.
He may not have been the sole focus of the offense for the Mean Green, but Chancellor sure made himself noticed as a kickoff and punt returner, one of only two players in the nation with three punt returns of over 50 yards as he was named the 2013 Conference USA Special Teams Player of the Year.
While the offense for the Mean Green doesn't exactly light up the scoreboard, the defense is another story entirely. Led by Zachary Orr and his staggering 114 tackles, including 11 for loss, this is a group that ranks ninth in the country in points allowed (18.1 ppg), is 19th in run defense (125.1 ypg) and 27th in total defense (355.5 ppg).
Although Orr doesn't own any of the team's 17 interceptions, he does have three forced fumbles and four recoveries for a group that has made it their job to halt opponents inside the red zone. In fact, heading into bowl season there was no one better in FBS as the group graded out to 0.606.