Five things: Gophers establishing powerful run game

For the second year in a row, Jerry Kill’s Minnesota Golden Gophers are 2-0 to start the season. Minnesota’s second win came Saturday in a 44-21 road victory over New Mexico State. The Gophers scored first and never let the Aggies get close the rest of the way as they earned the road win. Here are five things we learned in Minnesota’s lopsided victory over New Mexico State in Las Cruces.

1. No Donnell Kirkwood, no problem

Kirkwood was banged up in Minnesota’s season opener last week and did not play Saturday against New Mexico State. That didn’t matter for the Gophers, though, as they had two viable options in the backfield to pick up the slack.

True sophomore Rodrick Williams Jr. got the start in Kirkwood’s place, and he had a career day. Williams carried the ball 16 times for 148 yards — an impressive average of 9.3 yards per carry — and also scored a touchdown. His longest run of the game came early in the second half when he bounced to the outside and found daylight for a 54-yard run. That set up a Minnesota field goal, which put the Gophers up 30-7.

Williams missed a team meeting last week and was held out of the first half of Minnesota’s game against UNLV. He finished that game with just four carries for 13 yards — numbers he easily surpassed in Saturday’s win. Williams’ best game of his career prior to his big effort against New Mexico State was Minnesota’s bowl game loss to Texas Tech in which he rushed for 60 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries.

The Gophers also got 56 rushing yards from backup David Cobb on nine carries, and Cobb also found the end zone. Meanwhile, quarterback Philip Nelson rushed for 122 yards on 15 carries, giving Minnesota a pair of 100-yard rushers. Through two games, the Gophers have started to establish an identity on offense as a power running team.

2. The first road test has been passed

The Gophers won just twice on the road last year in their five road games, and failed to win away from TCF Bank Stadium in 2011. Things change when teams hit the road, as Minnesota has learned in recent years.

But there never seemed to be much of a home-field advantage Saturday for New Mexico State, despite the high temperatures in Las Cruces. Minnesota scored three times before the Aggies got on the board, which helped establish control early.

This was the Gophers’ only road game in non-conference play, and it came in the second game of the season. There are plenty of players who had just one game of experience entering Saturday’s contest, and this was their first opportunity to play away from home. It never appeared as if Minnesota had jitters playing on the road. The Gophers now have three straight home games at TCF Bank Stadium before heading back on the road again to face Michigan in the Big House on Nov. 5. Surely, that will be a bit stiffer of a road test than Saturday’s game was.

3. Marcus Jones was not a one-hit wonder on special teams

Perhaps the biggest play of last week’s game against UNLV was Jones’ 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the second half and help jumpstart Minnesota’s victory.

Jones did it again Saturday.

As time was winding down in the first half, Jones returned an Aggies punt 65 yards for a touchdown. After initially bobbling the catch, Jones found room to run and scored his second special teams touchdown in as many games. This one put Minnesota up 27-7 at the half — and showed that the Gophers might have something special in Jones, who underwent surgeries to repair both knees during his career. He made the switch back from receiver to cornerback this season, but so far his biggest impact has been in the kick return game. Minnesota did not have a kick or punt return for a touchdown last year. Thanks to Jones, the Gophers already have two in two games.

4. The passing game is still a work in progress

Nelson failed to crack 100 yards last week in the win against UNLV. Saturday, the sophomore quarterback attempted just 15 passes and completed eight of them for 127 yards. He also threw an interception in the second half as he tried to find a receiver over the middle.

No Gophers receiver had more than two catches Saturday — Derrick Engel, Maxx Williams and Logan Hutton each snagged a pair. Minnesota’s biggest pass play of the night was a 48-yarder to Engel on play action that gave the Gophers a first-and-goal situation. Other than that pass, though, Minnesota’s aerial attack wasn’t much of a factor. Not that it needed to be, though, as the Gophers rushed for 342 total yards. But there will come a time when Nelson and Minnesota need to show that they can threaten with the passing game. There wasn’t much of a threat of that Saturday.

5. Once again, the Gophers weren’t phased by a quick-strike, up-tempo offense

Minnesota saw UNLV quarterback Nick Sherry throw early and often last week as he attempted a whopping 50 passes. That was due to the Rebels’ no-huddle style of play that allowed for plenty of short passes from Sherry.

One week later, New Mexico State employed a similar style of no-huddle offense. Once again, Minnesota was not phased. Aggies starting quarterback Andrew McDonald was 22-for-31, but those 22 completions went for just 186 yards and the Gophers secondary avoided a big play. Backup quarterback King Davis III was 7-for-9 for 67 yards in garbage time but did not throw a touchdown pass. Overall, the Aggies averaged just 6.3 yards per pass — more than Sherry’s 4.4-yard average a week ago, but still not enough to make NMSU’s passing game much of a factor.

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