Wettstein's kick in triple OT helps Gophers salvage season-opening win
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LAS VEGAS -- For several prolonged moments on Thursday, visions of the Gophers' disheartening back-to-back three-win seasons came to the forefront.
But though the season opening contest was often ugly, the Gophers prevailed for a 30-27 triple overtime victory over UNLV after kicker Jordan Wettstein nailed the clinching 32-yard field goal.
As the kick passed through the uprights, Wettstein took off upfield as his teammates flooded the field in euphoric pursuit -- a sign of needed relief in a game the Gophers appeared on the brink of letting slip away.
While there were plenty of head-scratching moments -- the Gophers committed 11 penalties for 86 yards -- second-year coach Jerry Kill found solace in his team's ability to work through a situation that he said a year ago would have likely ended in defeat.
"Since I've been here we haven't had some of that fight-back when things didn't go our way," Kill said. "There were a lot of things that we created that didn't go our way and some things that just didn't go our way and we were able to hang in there."
The Rebels, who despite being outgained 478 yards to 275 and turning the ball over three times, rallied late in the fourth quarter to force overtime.
Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray overcame numerous bad throws and miscues in regulation to locate tight end John Rabe, who Gray had glaringly missed twice earlier, for a pair of key touchdowns in the overtime session.
"I told him I owed him and had to get it back to him and I did," Gray said. "Those were two big touchdowns that we needed and we got the W."
Gray ended the 90-plus degree night in Las Vegas with a 56 percent completion rate (17-of-30 for 269 yards, with an interception), softened by the 68 total yards he was able to gain on the ground.
Redshirt sophomore Donnell Kirkwood was the Gophers' leading rusher with 10 carries for 72 yards, while UNLV running back Tim Cornett recorded a game-high 127.
Just minutes into the game, the Gophers looked liked an upgraded and rejuvenated team, moving swiftly downfield thanks in large part to strong runs by Kirkwood.
When the ball was kept on the ground, the Gophers cruised. Problems arose as soon as Gray went to the air. Gray opened with three incompletions on four attempts, including a pass UNLV linebacker Tim Hasson nabbed off a tip in the redzone and ran back to the Gophers' 44-yard line.
It was a deflating start that was reminiscent of many "U" drives last season. However, UNLV only managed a field goal after the Gophers defense forced the Rebels to kick seven plays into the drive.
Gray, who finished 8-of-14 (116 yards) through the air in the first half, continued to struggle as the Gophers offense stalled on their next three drives. But UNLV's woes were worse than the Gophers.
"I was just too anxious," Gray said afterwards. "Every time we seemed to have a rhythm going we got a penalty or I was too anxious with the ball. That's something I have to pick up week-in and week-out."
With the Rebel running backs held in check, redshirt freshman quarterback Nick Sherry was kept under pressure by the "U" defensive line as he was sacked twice by Ra'Shede Hageman and D.L. Wilhite. Though Sherry completed 12 of 18 passes (93 yards) in the first half, he threw a glaring interception into the hands of wide-open safety Brock Vereen.
Gray's passing successes were sparse, but his 39-yard completion to wide receiver A.J. Barker helped set up a 16-yard touchdown run by James Gillum that propelled the Gophers into a 7-3 lead with less 10 minutes left in the second quarter.
The Gophers had an opportunity to pad their slim lead near the close of the half, but Gray overthrew Rabe on a would-be third down touchdown catch and Wettstein missed a kick from 32 yards out.
Penalties and self-inflicted mistakes clouded much of the game for the Gophers, especially in the third quarter, allowing UNLV back into the game.
Cornerback Troy Stoudermire botched a punt return. The ball bounced out of his hands and was recovered by UNLV's Tajh Hasson on the Gophers' 33-yard line. Stoudermire's night didn't improve as he was called for pass interference in the redzone on the ensuing drive. His penalty was one of several miscues that put Cornett in position to push forward one yard for UNLV's go-ahead touchdown.
Forced to rally, the Gophers offense both surged and sputtered. Kill's squad made it into the redzone on consecutive drives - one of which was made possible by an interception by safety Derrick Wells -- only to have both end in field goals.
The failure to not get into the endzone on at least one of those drives was a game-changer for the Gophers. Cornett motored his team into field goal range and Nolan Kohorst converted the overtime-forcing kick after the Rebels stalled on the Gophers' 18-yard line.
After trading touchdowns in the first two overtime session, Sherry threw a pick on UNLV's possession at the start of the third frame, creating an opportunity for the Gophers to sneak away with the game. Three safe runs by Kirkwood lined up Wettstein for the winning kick.
Wells was the subject of a heap of preseason hype from the Gophers coaching staff.
He proved Thursday that the praise was warranted.
In the third overtime session, Wells jumped in front of a pass from Sherry for his second interception of the night. It was a crucial pick as it aided in bringing the Gophers' clinching field goal several plays later.
"He's a big time player. I've said that all along," Kill said. "He's a 205-pound safety and a pretty special player. There ain't no question about that. The good thing is he proved it on game night."
101: Receiving yards for Barker -- a game-high. The junior receiver, who was hampered by hamstring problems for much of 2011, tallied three catches, topped by a 40-yard grab.
3: Number of times in last six years that the Gophers have gone to overtime in their season opener. They are 2-1 in those three contests.
2: Sacks by the Gophers defensive line -- almost one-fourth of the unit's total in 2011 (8.5).
9-2: Gophers' record in season openers, dating back to 2002. They lost to USC in Game 1 last season and Bowling Green in 2007.
3: Tackles, all assisted, by redshirt junior linebacker Brendan Beal in his first collegiate game. A pair of ACL injuries had delayed Beal's college debut by four years
"I didn't want to get tackled, so I kept running. I didn't know where I was going, but I didn't want to get on the bottom of a pile."
-- Wettstein, on his reason for running from his teammates in the post-game celebration.
• UNLV -- Nolan Kohorst 39-yard field goal, 9:13. Drive: 7 plays, 22 yards, 2:29. UNLV 3, Gophers 0
• Gophers -- James Gillum 16-yard run, extra-point by Wettstein, 9:26. Drive: 6 plays, 80-yards, 2:28. Gophers 7, UNLV 0
• UNLV -- Tim Cornett 1-yard run, extra point by Kohorst, 1:52. Drive: 5 plays, 33 yards, 2:32. UNLV 10, Gophers 7
• Gophers -- Wettstein 32-yard field goal, 8:55. Drive: 6 plays, 47 yards, 2:58. UNLV 10, Gophers 10
• Gophers -- Wettstein 21-yard field goal, 5:40. Drive: 5 plays, 20 yards, 2:23. Gophers 13, UNLV 10
• UNLV -- Kohorst 35-yard field goal, 2:46. Drive: 7 plays, 57 yards, 2:54. Gophers 13, UNLV 13.
• UNLV -- Tim Cornett 18-yard run, extra point by Kohorst. UNLV 20, Gophers 13
• Gophers -- Rabe 10-yard pass from Gray, extra point by Wettstein. UNLV 20, Gophers 20
• Gophers - Rabe 25-yard pass from Gray, extra point by Wettstein. Gophers 27, UNLV 20
• UNLV -- Devante Davis 6-yard pass from Sherry, extra point by Kohorst. Gophers 27, UNLV 27
• Gophers -- Wettstein 32-yard field goal. Gophers 30, UNLV 27
The Gophers return to the Twin Cities next weekend for their home opener at TCF Bank Stadium against NCAA-FCS foe New Hampshire (Sept. 8, 11 a.m.,). FCS opponents have provided little relief for the Gophers in the past few years. They have lost to an FCS team in three of the last four years.