Kill pleased with opener, but knows plenty of issues must be remedied
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Even after putting up their highest scoring output in seven years, the Minnesota Gophers didn't emerge from their 51-23 season-opening with rout of UNLV with outright fulfillment.
Ultimately the Gophers found a way to dominate, albeit against a lesser opponent, by rallying around critical big plays on both special teams and defense.
But a sluggish start, which saw UNLV push through the slow-to-settle "U" defense for a touchdown on the opening drive, and an offense that remains in search of a sense of rhythm, kept a multitude questions about the Gophers' potential this season left open to debate.
And coach Jerry Kill knows it.
At the same time, while he fully acknowledges the bounty of issues that need to be remedied, he expressed a grounded level of satisfaction as he sat in his office Friday going through game film from the night before.
Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover had been in Kill's office a little while earlier to discuss some of the offense's struggles. Kill's message to Limegrover was one that reflected his day-after demeanor.
"I said, "Hey, relax. It's the first ball game, man," Kill said, recalling the conversation.
Eased by a 1-0 record and fresh game footage to break down, it's tweak and adjust time for the Gophers.
Quarterback Philip Nelson completed only 10 of his 22 passes for 99 yards as the offense surged and stalled throughout the night. UNLV outgained the Gophers on its way to tagging 419 yards on the "U" defense. But again, key tackles, a pair of interceptions and big plays on defense and even offense bolstered the Gophers' second half trouncing.
"We gave up some big plays," Kill said. "The draw hurt us and there were a couple other plays we misfitted and things of that nature. We can't do that," I think every phase has things that need to be corrected, but I think in every phase we did some good things. There's good and bad in all of it."
The test now is avoiding some of those lapses and compiling a more end-to-end game when the Gophers travel to New Mexico State next weekend for the second straight game in which they will be heavily favored.
Concern at running back?
• Kill was uncertain on a timetable for running back Donnell Kirkwood's return, but indications are the junior starter may miss at least one week.
Kirkwood went down with a right ankle injury in the third quarter and later had it put in a walking boot.
With freshman tailback Berkley Edwards already nursing an ankle sprain, Kirkwood's injury adds early concern to the Gophers' running game entering Week 2. If both are unable to play, the unit's core responsibilities will likely be handed to sophomore Rodrick Williams Jr. and junior David Cobb, who impressed against UNLV with a late 60-yard run.
Cobb totaled 69 yards on six attempts, which was four yards higher than his career rushing total from his first two years on campus.
"He responded well," Kill said of Cobb's night. "It was probably good to see David do well, because we're going to need him and Rodrick at full tilt."
• Once they got past the first quarter, cornerbacks Eric Murray and Briean Boddy-Calhoun had two of the Gophers' strongest individual performances Thursday. But UNLV's first offensive series, in which the Rebels methodically went 75 yards on 13 plays, proved to be a rough transition ground for the pair, both of whom were making their first starts.
"Both our corners, Eric Murray and Briean, hadn't been starters in a game, so they played a little bit softer until they got comfortable with what they were seeing," Kill said.
• It caught the spotter in the spotter in the press box off-guard when third-string center Ernie Heifort showed up on the sidelines Thursday wearing No. 89. Kill later confirmed the redshirt sophomore has been moved to tight end to replace some of the size the group has lost with Alex Bisch out with a foot injury.
With Heifort in a new position, starting left guard Zac Epping is now the Gophers' No. 3 option at center.
• Freshman quarterback-turned-receiver Donovahn Jones didn't see much action in Game 1, but Kill intends for that to change going forward.
"He's going to get pushed more this week," Kill said. "There's no question about that. I can tell you that."