The Minnesota Golden Gophers opened their 2013 NCAA football season with a 51-23 win over the UNLV Rebels on a warm, muggy Thursday evening in Minneapolis. The Gophers traded scores with UNLV for much of the first half, highlighted by a 48-yard touchdown run by quarterback Phillip Nelson. Nelson also threw his first touchdown pass of the season to tight-end Maxx Williams near the end of the first half.
Minnesota led 16-13 at halftime.
The Gophers broke the game open with terrific special teams play in the 3rd quarter. Marcus Jones took the 2nd half kickoff and returned it 98 yards for a touchdown, putting the Gophers ahead 23-13. UNLV then drove the ball into field goal range but the Gophers Ra'Shede Hageman blocked the field goal attempt and after a brief scramble, Martez Shabazz scooped up the football and returned it 51 yards for a Gophers touchdown. The Gophers led 37-13 at that point.
The 4th quarter saw the Gophers score on yet another big play when defensive back Briean Brody-Calhoun picked off a pass from UNLV quarterback Nick Sherry and returned it 89 yards for a touchdown that put the Gophers ahead 44-16. The two teams then traded touchdowns late in the 4th to make the final score 51-23 in favor of Minnesota.
To be sure this was not a textbook win for the Gophers. They were outgained by UNLV 419 total net yards to 320. UNLV made 21 first downs during the game vs. the Gophers 17 and they ran 85 offensive plays vs. the Gophers 61.
The Gophers leading rusher in the game was quarterback Nelson with 83 yards. Starting tailback Donnell Kirkwood left the game with an leg and ankle injury. Kirkwood was carted off the field for x-rays and when returned to the field he had a boot on his injured leg. Kirkwood's injury is a big concern for the Gophers.
The Gophers defense was inconsistent most of the game. UNLV was a perfect 4-for-4 on 4th down conversions and the Gophers surrendered long runs of 64 yards and 26 yards during the game. UNLV also scored on a 34 yard touchdown reception in the 2nd quarter. Giving up big plays was a big problem for the Gophers in 2012 and that problem seems as though it may hang around in 2013.
Big plays and Phillip Nelson got the Gophers over the finish line against UNLV on Thursday, and it was a good win for sure. Past Gophers teams may well have found a way to lose a game in which they weren't sharp but this team made the plays necessary to beat a team they should have beaten. That said, they still have a long way to go in terms of establishing a running game (Nelson should never be the Gophers leading rusher), playing consistent defense and buttoning down their game in general.
The Gophers next game will be played on Sat. evening, Sept. 7 in Las Cruces, NM vs. New Mexico State. The game can be heard locally on 100.3 FM, KFAN radio.