North Texas and UNLV cap off surprising 2013 seasons with a matchup in the Heart of the Dallas Bowl on Jan. 1. Dallas has seen plenty of good bowl games on Jan. 1 in the Cotton Bowl, but the North Texas-UNLV matchup could be lost in the New Year’s Day shuffle, as the Heart of the Dallas bowl kicks off at the same time as the Gator, Capital One and Outback Bowls.
If you think there are too many bowl games – you haven’t studied this matchup. North Texas and UNLV were picked by many to finish near the bottom of their respective conferences. However, both teams were two of college football’s biggest surprises, combining for a 15-9 mark.
These two teams have met four times, with UNLV winning all four matchups. The last meeting between the Rebels and Mean Green was in 2000. In the last two games between these two teams, UNLV has outscored North Texas 64-3.
This is UNLV’s first appearance in a bowl since the 2000 Las Vegas Bowl. The Rebels are 3-0 in previous bowl matchups.
North Texas is 1-5 in six bowl appearances. The Mean Green has lost two in a row, with the only victory coming in the 2002 New Orleans Bowl.
North Texas vs. UNLV
Kickoff: Wednesday, Jan. 1 at Noon ET
TV Channel: ESPNU
Spread: North Texas -6.5
North Texas’ Key to Victory: Stop UNLV RB Tim Cornett
Running back Tim Cornett had an underrated and very productive career at UNLV. Cornett finished the 2013 regular season with 1,251 yards and 15 touchdowns and is only the second player in school history to record back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. Cornett is also UNLV’s career leading rusher. North Texas has been solid against the run this year, limiting opponents to only 125.1 rushing yards per game. The Mean Green allowed only six rushing scores in eight Conference USA contests and limited both Rice and MTSU – the top two teams in conference-only games in rushing offense – to less than 140 yards on the ground. The strength of North Texas’ defense is in the front seven, with linebacker Zach Orr as the headliner (114 tackles). UNLV’s offensive line is anchored by left tackle Brett Boyko (second-team All-Mountain West), and this unit gave up just 21 sacks and helped to pave the way for the Rebels to average 4.5 yards per carry. This is a strength versus strength scenario. If UNLV wins the battle in the trenches, Cornett should easily top the 100-yard mark. But if North Texas is able to establish its edge in the trenches, Cornett will struggle, forcing the Rebels to lean more on quarterback Caleb Herring.
UNLV’s Key to Victory: Make North Texas win the game with the pass
Much like UNLV, North Texas prefers to lean on its ground game to win. Leading the way for the Mean Green’s rushing attack is Brandin Byrd (1,023 yards, 5.6 ypc) and Antoinne Jimmerson (428 yards, 4.3 ypc). The running backs get the attention in Denton, but the offensive line is a veteran unit, led by guards Cyril Lemon and Mason Y’Barbo. This line will be critical to North Texas’ hopes at victory, especially with a struggling UNLV defense. The Rebels ranked ninth in the Mountain West against the run, allowing a whopping 222.6 yards per game on the ground. No UNLV defender garnered all-conference honors this season, so this is a unit looking for answers in the bowl practices. While North Texas has proven it can run the ball, the passing attack has left a little to be desired. Of course, with a strong defense and rushing attack, quarterback Derek Thompson doesn’t need a huge performance each week. In eight Conference USA games, the Mean Green ranked eighth in the conference in passing offense, throwing eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions. How important is it to force the Mean Green out of their comfort zone? In eight wins, the offense is averaging 25.9 pass attempts. In four losses, North Texas averaged 38.3 attempts. Stopping the run has been an issue for UNLV, but it’s essential the Rebels slow Byrd and Jimmerson on Jan. 1.
Key Player: Caleb Herring, QB, UNLV
Herring finished the fall as the team’s No. 2 quarterback behind Nick Sherry. But after a slow start by Sherry, Herring took over the No. 1 job and was a key cog in UNLV’s turnaround. The senior threw for 2,522 yards and 22 touchdowns, but most importantly, he completed 64.3 percent of his throws and tossed only four interceptions. Herring’s emergence gave the Rebels’ offense balance and allowed the team to take advantage of a solid group of weapons at receiver, including Devante Davis (77 catches, 1,194 yards). Herring will need another efficient effort on Jan. 1, as North Texas’ secondary allowed just five passing scores in conference games. The Mean Green also picked off 12 passes. With North Texas likely to stuff the box to stop Cornett, UNLV’s offense needs Herring to have success early in the game.
Both programs should be excited to be in this bowl. UNLV coach Bobby Hauck began the year on the hot seat but earned a contract extension with a 7-5 season. After a 9-15 start under Dan McCarney, North Texas nearly won Conference USA’s West Division with an 8-4 record. Both programs are pointed in the right direction, and this game is a reward for a breakout year. Quarterback play will be critical for both teams on Jan. 1. If Herring has success early, UNLV should be able to establish its running game. And the same can be said for North Texas, but Herring was more efficient than Derek Thompson in 2013. The Rebels have an edge in offensive talent with Herring and Cornett, but the Mean Green has the better defense and a home-field advantage. Those two factors should be the difference in this game.
Prediction: North Texas 31, UNLV 24