Unspectacular in the first half, Gophers pull away late to beat UNLV
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Moments after leaping in front of a pass from UNLV quarterback Nick Sherry, Minnesota Gophers cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun streaked into the endzone and gave an enthusiastic kick in triumph in the direction of the student section.
Boddy's touchdown stance stood as signal that the rout was on at TCF Bank Stadium on Thursday night.
In less than 20 minutes, a poor first half had turned into the Gophers' highest scoring output in TCF Bank Stadium's five-year history.
The Gophers turned around what could have been an infuriatingly too-close-for-comfort outcome into a 51-23 victory thanks to a pair of stellar special teams plays and a resilient defensive performance.
UNLV, which has now lost 23 consecutive road games, the second longest streak in the nation, struck first with an opening drive touchdown and weren't ready to relent. By halftime, the Gophers, who were being outgained 181 yards to 174 yards, eased some of the first half sting with a late touchdown from struggling offense to grasp 16-13 lead just before the break.
But it was evident, with the offense slow to find a level of cohesion, that the Gophers needed a jolt if they wanted to command the game the way onlookers felt they needed to.
They got just that within seconds of the opening second half kickoff.
Cornerback Marcus Jones, who was coming off his second ACL injury in a two-year span, reeled off a 98-yard touchdown return.
"When we left the locker room (after halftime), I said, 'someone's got to step up and make a play, we've got to make some big plays," head coach Jerry Kill said. "We're capable of that, just loosen up and go play.' And then shoot, boom, the opening kickoff of the second half."
It didn't take long until the special teams unit came up with another critical play. Defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman blocked a field goal that would have brought UNLV within seven points. Instead, cornerback Martez Shabazz eventually scooped up loose ball and hurried 51-yards downfield for a touchdown.
By the time Boddy-Calhoun was celebrating in the endzone the Gophers' lead had swollen to 37-16. With plenty of cushion to work with, the "U" offense finally awoke to pile on two more touchdowns, securing the highest scoring game of Kill's tenure.
A glance at a few key final stats deceivingly indicated a much different game. The Rebels outgained the Gophers by 99 yards (419-320), and UNLV quarterback Nick Sherry (35-of-50) rode a slew of short passes to a 70% completion rate, out-passing sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson (10-of-22) 226 yards to 99.
While there are undoubtedly several concerns that came out of Thursday's game, it was big plays that allowed the Gophers to completely alter the complexion of the game - something rarely seen from Kill's teams in his first two seasons.
However, the Gophers' misgivings in the first half can't be entirely overlooked.
A strong start would have helped inspire confidence about the Gophers' perceived offseason developmental leap.
So much for setting the tone early on.
UNLV, sticking with an up-tempo, no-huddle spread attack, tormented the Gophers defense on its opening drive with a runs from tailback Tim Cornett and a flurry of quick slant passes from Sherry.
Battling a draining 91 degree humid backdrop, the "U" defense looked disjointed early as the Rebels put together a methodical 13-play drive capped by Cornett busting through the middle of the defense with little trouble for a 26-yard touchdown run.
Four plays into the Gophers' first offensive series, their poor start took another hit. Nelson underthrew a deep pass for senior receiver Derrick Engel near the sideline that UNLV linebacker Tajh Hasson slipped down to pick off.
The Gophers slowly rebounded, starting with a solid three-and-out defensive stand on UNLV's second drive, but for a team that was looking to send a statement from the get-go, it was not the first half they wanted.
The Gophers can get away with sub-par first half against the lower-tier competition of the nonconference schedule. But it is a trait they cannot afford to keep displaying as the season inches closer to Big Ten play.
Nelson completed only half of his throws (7-for-14, 66-yards) in the opening 30 minutes, and shouldered a heavier than expected running load early on (seven attempts, 65 yards) with running backs Donnell Kirkwood and David Cobb getting only 46 yards on 13 carries.
"We definitely have some things to clean up there," Nelson said. "We knew that they had a new D-coordinator and they definitely mixed things up more than last year. The secondary did a great job of playing well and manning us up at times. That's something we have to work on. We need to complete more balls. We need to move the ball better."
Sluggish starts on offense, many of which ended up turning into full game problems, were a consistent issue for the Gophers last season, most notably in losses against Iowa and Nebraska. These problems can be traced back largely to an offense that still lacks an identity, although the defense has not been without a fault.
Entering with the season building expectations and the need for tangible signs of improvement, Thursday was not the end to end performance that could have gone further to soften some of the lingering preseason doubts of the Gophers' long-term trajectory.
But ultimately the Gophers simply needed to win and avoid a nasty blemish out of the gate.
And they received that, and more.
"There was a lot of teaching to be made from the film and so forth, but there was a lot of good things that happened out there," Kill said. "The most important one is we won the game. It's a lot easier to teach after a victory than after a loss."
For a squad with a notable developmental gap still needed to be scaled to compete consistently in the Big Ten, the Gophers' second-half rebound had dominant elements that could be key in gearing them up for the Year 3 growth Kill's program needs.