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Updated: September 6th, 2013 2:37pm
What to watch for: Gophers can't afford letdown at New Mexico State

What to watch for: Gophers can't afford letdown at New Mexico State

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com

Who: Minnesota Gophers (1-0) at New Mexico State (0-1)
When: 7 p.m. Saturday.
Where: Aggie Memorial Stadium (capacity: 30,343), Las Cruces, N.M.
TV: BTN2Go (live), Fox Sports North (tape delay - Sept. 8, 10 a.m.)
Line: Gophers by 15
Coaches: Gophers -- Jerry Kill (3rd season, 10-16). NMSU - Doug Martin (1st season,0-1).
Series: New Mexico State leads 1-0
Last meeting: Sept. 10, 2011 -- New Mexico State has only won 10 games since 2009. Unfortunately for the Gophers one of those came at their expense when the Aggies held on for a 28-21 defeat at TCF Bank Stadium in only the second game of the Jerry Kill era.

Injuries: Gophers' full injury report can be found here.

State of affairs

The Gophers were far from flawless in their season opener against UNLV, tripped up by a sluggish opening half and an inconsistent offense. But ultimately Kill's squad capitalized with a trio of defensive and special teams touchdowns to rapidly turn the game into a 51-23 blowout -- the highest scoring output by the Gophers since 2006

New Mexico State at a glance

Doug Martin, two years after he resigned at Kent State, was brought in by New Mexico State this year to resurrect a program that has not won more than five games in a season since 2002. The road out of the FBS cellar will certainly be a difficult one if Martin intends to reverse NMSU's downhill trend.

Martin's Aggies stuck with No. 15-ranked Texas in their season debut last week ... for one quarter at least. New Mexico State even held a 7-0 lead on the Longhorns late in the second quarter, but in a matter of minutes Texas awoke to rumble to 715 total yards and 56 unanswered points.

Aggie to watch

QB Andrew McDonald

McDonald got the nod over intriguing freshman King Davis III in Game 1 for the Aggies, and despite the vastly skewed final score, the senior quarterback did what he could against the Longhorns. McDonald threw for 242 yards on a 32-of-46 clip and ran for additional 50 yards, but his primary miscues came in the form of two turnovers (one interception, one fumble).

Three keys for the Gophers

Avoid road weariness

Going on the road in Week 2 of the season, especially a trip all way down close to the United States-Mexico border is not ideal. The Gophers are an improved squad, but an early road trip, even one to face a low-tier opponent like New Mexico State, provides another gauge to determine the state of Kill's program.

But New Mexico State is a team the Gophers need to show they can handle without too much difficulty. Doing so would mean picking up only the third road win in Kill's three-year tenure.

Carrying on

Donnell Kirkwood was listed as questionable on the Gophers' injury report Thursday, but a sprained right ankle will keep the junior starting tailback out of Saturday's game. That means the Gophers' run-first offense will need to rely on sophomore Rodrick Williams and junior David Cobb.

Williams is likely to get the start, equipped with the bruising, downhill style that fits the tempo the offense wants to set early on. But Cobb should see his share of snaps, offering a different look in the backfield. This is Cobb's biggest opportunity to take another step up the "U" depth chart.

Kill labeled this week the best series of practices he's seen from his running backs, who are all vying to rise into Kirkwood's spot. Now that talk of heightened backfield competition has to show up in the form of tangible in-game results.

Consistency on offense

In the end, the Gophers didn't need any more from quarterback Philip Nelson and the "U" passing game than the 99 yards and one touchdown provided in the rout of UNLV. Nelson did show obvious improvement in his composure under center, rebounding from an early interception and goal line fumble. But he has to be able to better his 45% completion rate (10-of-22).

A large part of that responsibility falls to his receivers, who have to be able to come down with more plays in difficult situations. Redshirt junior receiver Derrick Engel is looking for a bounce-back game after being unable to reel in any of the five passes Nelson threw his way last week.

Numbers game

11-3: The Gophers' record in nonconference road games since 1998, with losses coming against USC (2011), Florida Atlantic (2007) and Toledo (2001).

2009: Last year the Gophers scored 30 points or more in back to back games, following a 42-34 defeat of Michigan State with a 35-32 loss to Illinois.

Calling it

Gophers 38, New Mexico State 17

A slow start, like what was seen against UNLV in Game 1, is likely to happen again as the Gophers adjust to the unfamiliar setting in Las Cruces. However, the Gophers have to be able to separate themselves from the Aggies by the early goings of the second half.

New Mexico State's offense features similar elements to the looks the Rebels showed Minnesota. The "U" defense could be dominant against the Aggies, but it needs to avoid the big plays given up to UNLV.

The even-keel demeanor that surrounded the team this week indicated the Gophers are well aware that anything but a win in the desert on Saturday night would be a significant step back for the program.

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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