Breaking down the tape from the Gophers' win over UNLV
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It was an opening game that had its share of cringe-worthy moments, but the Gophers survived in triple overtime on Thursday at UNLV to start the second year of the Jerry Kill era with a victory.
The following is a breakdown of the Gophers' 30-27 win, with input from a conversation Kill had with beat reporters on Saturday:
The Gophers' offense was riddled with inconsistencies for the bulk of regulation, and MarQueis Gray was one of the primary culprits. Gray's accuracy came and went with rapid fluidity, bringing to mind painful memories of his first year under center in 2011. Though Gray completed 56.6% of his passes (17-for-30, one interception) -- six points higher than his average last season (50.7%) -- he badly missed his receivers on numerous occasions against a porous UNLV secondary. It was obvious Gray was getting overly excited and anxious -- a charge he freely admitted to postgame. Gray had nine overthrows to open receivers, with a sizeable chunk of them coming off play action. In the first quarter, he hurried a throw as he rolled out on play-action and sailed the ball past wide-open senior TE John Rabe on what would have been an easy touchdown. Two plays later, he had WR Marcus Jones open up the middle. A UNLV defender tipped the ball and Tim Hasson picked it off. Gray's troubles with keeping his accuracy at a manageable rate came as a bit of surprise as he had shown improvement with a noticeably concise performance in fall camp. "He's eager to please and I think he gets geared up," Kill said. "He never really seemed to settle in until we got to overtime." Gray was active and mobile, taking off upfield 17 times for 68 yards (4.0 average). While there were lapses, his tendency to quickly tuck and run after the snap had notably decreased. When he found his receivers, the Gophers were able to pick up big gains. Gray threw for 269 yards, spreading the ball around to nine targets for 269 yards, with six gains of 22 yards or more (30, 39, 22, 40, 22, 25). Despite his abrupt peaks and valleys, the senior quarterback indeed completed plays when the Gophers desperately needed them. Facing a seven-point deficit in the first overtime, he zipped a 10-yard pass to Rabe for crucial touchdown. Minutes later, with the ball in his hands to start the second overtime session, Gray went right back to Rabe. The result: A 25-yards touchdown reception. "What he did in overtime is important. When it counted it, he got good," Kill said. "Does he have to complete the throws that we ask him to do early in the game? Absolutely, and he knows that."
TB James Gillum -- the junior college transfer who grabbed attention throughout camp -- was solid, contributing 51 yards on 14 rushing attempts (3.6 average) and the Gophers' only touchdown in regulation. But it was redshirt sophomore TB Donnell Kirkwood who seized the opportunity. With his reoccurring hamstring troubles finally in check, Kirkwood harnessed his power-back style and rumbled through the UNLV defense. Showing an elevated sense of patience and field vision, Kirkwood produced 81 yards off 14 carries (6.2) to go with an 8-yard reception. For as sound as he was with the ball, Kirkwood's biggest impact came on the block. Repeatedly, he helped the offensive line open running lanes. On a third-quarter drive, as Gray began to scramble, Kirkwood located an incoming defender and slammed into him, allowing his quarterback to run for 12 yards. Kirkwood's signs of progress in camp and on Thursday bodes well for the early development of the Gophers' run game. Whether or not he can hold up for a 12-game season will be the lingering question mark. On several instances, Kirkwood ran out of energy and had to call himself out of the game. Gillum wasn't electric, but he picked up yards in sporadic bursts. Speedy backup TB Devon Wright tallied 7 yards on his lone run. True freshman TB K.J. Maye didn't take a handoff, but was used in the passing game (three receptions, 23 yards). The Gophers didn't adjust consistently when the UNLV defense made changes as the run game stalled at times. That has to improve before they face defenses decidedly more competent than UNLV's once the Big Ten season begins -- or even before they meet Western Michigan in Week 3.
Making sense of the jumble of bodies here was one of the main conundrums that loomed over the Gophers offense. Thursday provided only a small sample and the opponent was subpar, but the receiving corps as a whole was near the top of the Gophers' list of surprising positives. The Rebels struggled to keep up off the snap, getting beaten repeatedly down the field. Highlighted by A.J. Barker's game-high 101 receiving yards, the Gophers had four receivers who were either not on the team or did not log a catch in last season combine for 148 yards on six receptions. Barker, who was the subject to increasing praise from Kill and OC Matt Limegrover, outraced defenders on the corners for receptions of 39, 22 and 40 yards. Returning sophomore Devin Crawford-Tufts was active for 49 yards on four catches. The Gophers weren't shying away from sending sophomore Marcus Jones, fresh off his recovery from an ACL tear, up the middle. The Gophers' receivers and tailbacks were both aided by a slew of missed tackles by UNLV. "I'm excited we've got guys to run past some people. That's the important thing," Kill said. "And when we had the ball (in reach), we caught the ball." As Gray's accuracy faltered, the receivers fell out of sync on occasion. Freshman Andre McDonald was inserted into the mix right away. He showed off impressive speed and finesse, but was out of position on a couple throws. The receiving unit suffered a blow in the first half when true freshman Jamel Harbison went out with a knee injury, which was later found to be a season-ending ACL tear. Harbison, who was in the starting rotation, would have likely factored in as one of the Gophers' main receivers. The bright side that came out of Thursday was the Gophers may have more useable options available than was first thought. "Our receivers played a lot faster than what you thought they would in practice," Kill said. "We've got to work at this speed to get our timing down. If we complete those balls it makes it a whole different situation with the run game."
It was no shock Rabe was slated No. 1 on the depth chart and was Gray's favorite target in the red zone. Rabe's only two catches converted the Gophers' pair of critical touchdowns in overtime. His 35-yard total would have been more had Gray been able to keep the ball in reach. Sophomore Drew Goodger was the only other tight end that saw playing time and was used mainly to block. Goodger missed a block in the third quarter that left Gray exposed and led to UNLV's only sack of the game.
The O-line, considered the strength of the Gophers' offense, had an up and down night, falling short of the lofty hype. At times, the protection around Gray and the running backs collapsed. The group was continually searching for consistency as communication faltered sporadically -- two of the Gophers' 11 penalties came on false starts from Tommy Olson and Josh Campion. There were no unexpected faces among the five starters, with Ed and Tommy Olson at left tackle and left guard, Zach Mottla at center, Zac Epping at right guard and Campion situated at right tackle. Foster Bush, Marek Lenkiewicz and Caleb Bak were all used in relief spots. "We didn't play well as a group on the offensive line at all," Kill said bluntly. "Not what we expected. I think we have higher expectations ... I think Josh (Campion) and (Zac) Epping played well, but as a group, there were some communication issues."
DC Tracy Claeys tried to pressure and fluster UNLV redshirt freshman QB Nick Sherry. It worked. The Gophers sacked Sherry twice, knocked him to the ground 15 times and had eight quarterback hurries. In an 8-minute span, the Gophers defensive line notched nearly one-quarter of its sack total from 2012 (8½). Towards the end of the first quarter, hulking DT Ra'Shede Hageman chased down Sherry for the Gophers' first sack, getting away with a potential horse collar tackle. DE D.L. Wilhite, who early in camp seemed to be slipping down the depth chart, played up tempo throughout the night and got to Sherry for 10-yard loss that ended a promising UNLV drive in the second quarter. "D.L. Wilhite played outstanding. That's his best game since we've been here," Kill said. As Claeys said would be the case, the Gophers rotated guys in and out on the line frequently, with Ben Perry, Roland Johnson, Thieren Cockran as the primary backups to starters Wilhite, Cameron Botticelli, Hageman and Michael Amaefula. The line did run into troubles in the second half, as the unit had moments where it looked tired. After rushing for 41 yards in the first half, UNLV recorded 118 yards the rest of the way, captained by RB Tim Cornett (127 total yards). The Gophers had surrendered only a field goal when a six-play UNLV drive started anew after CB Troy Stoudermire muffed a punt. UNLV slowly wore down the front line with a slew of small rushes, setting up a Cornett touchdown. It happened again in the first overtime session as Cornett broke by the line and downfield for an 18-yard touchdown. But for a line that took a while to gel last season, the amount of pressure it inflicted on Sherry was a big positive.
Redshirt junior SLB Aaron Hill got the start over Spencer Reeves, who was at the top of the depth chart to start camp. Apart from a late-hit penalty that contributed to setting up UNLV for the tying touchdown in the second OT session, Hill backed up the promotion by providing aggressive pressure and posting four tackles (two solo, two assisted). Reeves still factored into the rotation as all nine linebackers the Gophers traveled to Las Vegas logged playing time. MLB Mike Rallis looked comfortable in his new role, keeping the defense intact. He finished third on the team in tackles with seven, including one for a 2-yard loss. The unit ran out of gas towards the end of the third quarter but were rebounded thanks to the group's depth -- a high commodity for any position on the Gophers' roster. "Sometimes you fall off or somebody makes a mental error when you put them in," Kill said. "We didn't have that at linebacker. We had a lot of that the whole year last year."
In the week leading up to the season opener, Claeys mentioned he remained uneasy about the secondary because of all the unproven players that had been added in the offseason in an attempt to strengthen the weakest portion of the "U" defense. Though UNLV is far from being an intensely formidable offensive foe, the secondary excelled at a high enough rate to significantly lower some of Claeys' concerns. Sophomore S Derrick Wells matched the heaping praise he received in camp with a near-breakout outing. He ran all over the middle of the field, keeping himself in the UNLV passing lanes. He picked off passes from Sherry twice -- one of which came in the third overtime session and opened the way for the Gophers' winning field goal -- and finished tied with Stoudermire as the team's leading tacklers with eight apiece. Sherry never found a passing rhythm. From halftime on, Sherry completed only 4 of 17 passes (23%). The problems in the secondary still have not been fully remedied. The group had several notable missed tackles and the overall chemistry remains in development. Stoudermire, back as one of the starting corner after missing the majority of last season due to injury, was beaten badly by WR Marcus Sullivan in the second quarter after a poorly timed dive. Wells and Stoudermire both were called for personal fouls on drives that ultimately ended in points for UNLV.
Kill made a rare appearance on the field in pregame warm-ups on Thursday. It wasn't because of a desire to get out of the cramped locker room at Sam Boyd Stadium. He still hadn't decided on a punter. The punting unit has been among the worst in the country for the last two years. The Gophers' starter during that span, junior Dan Orseske, was left off the travel roster, leaving Kill to choose from Peter Mortell, David Schwerman and Christian Eldred. With Mortell experiencing leg issues in the week leading up to the game, Kill opted to hold him out and settled on Schwerman. Two punts in, after shanking the ball 19-yards out of bounds, Schwerman was pulled in favor of Eldred. The newcomer from Melbourne, Australia, who had not played American football before last year, put together a respectable outing. Eldred averaged just 36.8 yards on five attempts, but his rating was lowered as a result of a pair of pooch punts. His longest punt was his first and went 47 yards, with an impressive 4.89-second hang time. "I certainly didn't feel good when we kicked one off the side of our foot there, but I punted a kid that had never punted before in a college football game and I thought he punted well," Kill said. Chris Hawthorne had challenged Jordan Wettstein in camp for the starting job at kicker. But Wettstein maintained his top spot, which he gained last season after Hawthorne suffered a leg injury. Wettstein's night got off to bad start when he missed a 32-yard attempt in the first quarter - his first career miss. However, he rebounded by converting his next three tries, including another 32-yarder that won the game for the Gophers in overtime. Hawthorne isn't likely to remain inactive this season. He may alternate or fill in for Wettstein on kickoffs.