MINNEAPOLIS — For the first time since 2009, the University of Minnesota football team is 2-0 to start its season. The Gophers’ latest win was a rare blowout, a 44-7 win over visiting New Hampshire in the 2012 home opener.
It was the most points Minnesota scored since putting up 48 in a double-overtime loss to Northwestern in 2007. As far as regulation games, Saturday’s 44 points were the most since a 63-26 win over Indiana in November of 2006.
Now, the Gophers take momentum into next Saturday’s home game against Western Michigan. Here are five things we learned about 2-0 Minnesota in Saturday’s blowout win over New Hampshire.
1. Minnesota’s defensive line is much improved from last year.
For the past few seasons, sack totals have been a big concern for the Gophers defense. They routinely ranked near the bottom of the Big Ten in sacks as the defensive line had trouble getting into the backfield.
That hasn’t been the case through two games this season. Minnesota sacked New Hampshire quarterback Andy Vailas four times on Saturday, including a pair of sacks by junior defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman. Saturday’s two sacks matched Hageman’s career total, as he had two as a sophomore last year.
Defensive end D.L. Wilhite also had a big day on the defensive line, registered 1.5 sacks in Saturday’s win. He finished last year second on the Gophers with three sacks.
Including two against UNLV, the Gophers now have six total sacks in their first two games — not that they’re counting.
“I think we’re at five for the D-line,” Wilhite said. “We try not to count too much, but we all try to keep counts because we’re all trying to push each other to see who’s going to get the most. It’s definitely fun to get out there and get after the quarterback.”
Wilhite joked that he and Hageman have been trying to one-up each other, as each lineman wants to lead the Gophers in sacks. Through two games, Hageman has a slight edge on Wilhite, three sacks to two and a half.
The Gophers don’t care which lineman is getting to the quarterback, however. When asked about the biggest difference in his defensive line this season, Kill sung the praises of Eric Klein, the team’s head strength and conditioning coach.
“He’s the best strength coach in the country. I’ve said that all along,” Kill said. ” … Some of the guys like D.L. and Ra’Shede, some of the older guys, those guys have definitely improved in the weight room and their ability to run, no question about that.”
2. FBS, FCS — any way you slice it, the Gophers are 2-0.
Sure, Saturday’s win came against a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) opponent in New Hampshire. But just one year ago, the Gophers got more than they could handle from an FCS foe when North Dakota State came to TCF Bank Stadium and stunned Minnesota.
On Saturday, the Gophers never let the Wildcats think they were in the game. From start to finish, it was a one-sided matchup between a Big Ten school and an FCS school.
Entering Saturday’s matchup, Minnesota insisted it wasn’t taking New Hampshire for granted. The Gophers backed those words up on the field.
“This week, we kind of emphasized how we have a chip on our shoulder,” said Gophers tight end John Rabe, who caught a touchdown in Saturday’s win. “The last two years, we’ve lost to South Dakota and North Dakota State, both (FCS) teams. So we can’t take any team lightly. We’ve just got to go out and play every game with a chip on our shoulder and just play hard. If we play hard, we’ll have good things happen.”
So far, good things have happened. Starting the season 2-0 is much better than opening 0-2, which is what the Gophers did last year in Kill’s first season at the helm.
3. Minnesota plans to keep going with Donnell Kirkwood at running back.
Kirkwood emerged late in fall camp as the Gophers’ starting running back. He got the start against UNLV last week and ran for a team-high 81 yards. In that game, though, he had fewer carries (13) than junior college transfer James Gillum (14).
That wasn’t the case Saturday, as Kirkwood carried the load out of the backfield. He tied quarterback MarQueis Gray for a team-high 17 carries. Kirkwood picked up 70 yards for an average of 4.1 yards per carry. He also scored on a two-yard run in the third quarter that put Minnesota up 37-7.
Minnesota’s other running backs, meanwhile, were a non-factor. Gillum carried five times for one yard and lost a fumble. Devon Wright had just three carries for 12 yards, and K.J. Maye gained 11 yards on four carries.
Clearly, the Gophers have confidence in Kirkwood. They’ll keep handing him the ball until he gives them a reason not to.
4. The Gophers defense is capable of turning the ball over.
Last season, Minnesota had just four interceptions on defense all season. The Gophers have now equaled that total in just two games, thanks to a second-half interception by junior college transfer Martez Shabazz. The junior defensive back picked off Vailas on a deep pass downfield, giving Minnesota the ball at its own 14-yard line. The Gophers later marched down the field and scored to take advantage of the turnover.
Late in the first half, Wilhite got to Vailas on a 3rd-and-9 play and recorded the strip sack, knocking the ball loose. Defensive lineman Michael Amaefula recovered, and Minnesota turned the short field into a touchdown three plays later.
Because of turnovers, the Gophers offense worked with a short field on multiple occasions. Winning the turnover battle each week will be crucial for Minnesota, especially once the Big Ten season starts.
5. Minnesota’s special teams can be a strength.
The first points the Gophers scored on Saturday were on special teams when New Hampshire fumbled a punt and was forced to throw the ball out of the back of the end zone for a safety. But all day, Minnesota won the field position battle and started several drives with a short field.
Gophers punter Christian Eldred, a sophomore left-footed kicker from Australia, punted four times for an average of 42 yards per punt. None of his four punts were returned by the Wildcats — three resulted in fair catches.
On the other end, the Gophers averaged 15.7 yards per punt return on three returns by wide receiver A.J. Barker. Last week, Minnesota averaged just 4.3 yards per punt return against UNLV.
“I think the thing I’m most happy about is we caught punts today,” Kill said of the special teams. “Barker did a great job of catching punts and making great decisions in the punting game. And I’m very proud of Christian Eldred, the Australian. … He was the difference in the game with field position early in the game punting into the wind.”