The University of Minnesota football team hits the road for the first time in 2013, and it does so on the heels of a 51-23 rout of UNLV in the season opener last Thursday. Now the Gophers will face New Mexico State, a team that beat Minnesota at TCF Bank Stadium back in 2011. Revenge will surely be on the Gophers’ minds as they attempt to begin the year with a perfect 2-0 mark. Here are five things to watch for Saturday’s game between Minnesota and New Mexico State.
1. Texas let New Mexico State hang around for the first half of last week’s game. Will the Gophers do the same?
In Thursday’s win over UNLV, Minnesota led by just three points at halftime before using a handful of big plays to pull away from the Rebels. Two days later, the Aggies scored first against Texas and trailed by just a touchdown at halftime. The scare from NMSU was brief, however, as the Longhorns scored 42 second-half points en route to a big 56-7 win. Still, for two quarters, the Aggies hung close with 15th-ranked Texas.
Minnesota doesn’t want to let New Mexico State get any sort of momentum early, especially since the Aggies are playing in front of their home crowd. If the Gophers have another slow start like they did against UNLV, things could certainly get interesting. It will be important for Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson and the offense to establish a rhythm early and squash any possible notions of an upset.
2. Can Rodrick Williams Jr. and David Cobb pick up the slack in place of Donnell Kirkwood?
Kirkwood, the Gophers’ starting running back entering 2013, suffered an ankle injury in Thursday’s win over UNLV and is officially listed as questionable on Minnesota’s injury report. But it sounds as if the Gophers will be cautious with Kirkwood and won’t try to hurry him back if he’s not 100 percent. That means Williams and Cobb will split the bulk of the carries in Kirkwood’s absence.
Williams was listed as the starting tailback on the Gophers’ depth chart that was released Thursday, while Cobb is slated to back him up. Williams missed the first half against UNLV, though, after he was late to a team meeting earlier in the week. He finished with just four carries for 13 yards. Cobb, meanwhile, had six carries for 69 yards — including a career-long 60-yard run. Both backs should be capable of filling in for the injured Kirkwood if he indeed can’t go Saturday at New Mexico State.
3. Minnesota’s special teams were truly special in the win against UNLV. Can that unit come up big again?
The Gophers scored a pair of special teams touchdowns early in the second half, and those two scores helped turn a three-point lead into a 17-point advantage. Kick returner Marcus Jones ran back a kickoff 98 yards to the end zone, and Minnesota later blocked a field goal and returned in 51 yards for a touchdown. While the offense was sluggish, the special teams gave the Gophers a much-needed jolt.
Jones, who began his career at wide receiver before moving to cornerback, has shown that he still has speed despite undergoing ACL surgeries on both knees. Minnesota was hoping to find someone to fill Troy Stoudermire’s shoes on kickoff returns, and Jones answered the bell in Week 1. He’ll have a chance to follow up that performance on Saturday — although New Mexico State kicked off just twice in its loss to Texas.
4. Philip Nelson’s pass-to-run ratio.
Nelson, the Gophers’ sophomore quarterback, admitted after the win against UNLV that he didn’t expect to run as often as he did. He wound up leading Minnesota in rushing yards, carrying the ball 12 times for 83 yards and a pair of touchdowns, including a 48-yarder. As a true freshman last year, Nelson had four games (out of seven) in which he rushed 12 times or more. If Kirkwood indeed isn’t good to go Saturday, that means Nelson may tuck the ball and run a bit more.
Still, it will be important for Nelson to help Minnesota establish some semblance of a passing game against New Mexico State. Last week he completed just 10 of 22 passes for 99 yards. Against Texas in Week 1, the Aggies allowed 356 total passing yards and four touchdowns, but also picked off Longhorns quarterback David Ash twice.
5. Another no-huddle offense.
The Gophers were tested in Week 1 by an up-tempo, quick-strike UNLV offense. Rebels quarterback Nick Sherry attempted 50 passes, completing 35 for 226 yards. Most of his attempts, however, were for short gains. UNLV didn’t have much of a vertical passing game to speak of as the Gophers were willing to surrender the short-yardage passes if it meant preventing any big plays downfield. That strategy worked: Sherry’s longest pass went for a 34-yard touchdown, the only completion of more than 15 yards.
Minnesota will face a similar approach Saturday as Aggies quarterback Andrew McDonald will throw early and often. McDonald and NMSU lacked a big-play passing game against Texas, though, as their longest completion went for 27 yards. Still, New Mexico State attempted eight more passes than it had rushing attempts (46 to 38) and should test Minnesota’s secondary. That secondary may welcome the return of cornerback Derrick Wells, who missed the opener with an injury but practiced this week and was not listed on the injury report. However, Wells was listed as the second-team cornerback behind sophomore Eric Murray.