Gophers report card: Rushing identity established

Minnesota is now 2-0 to start the 2013 season after a convincing 44-21 victory Saturday over New Mexico State. The Gophers passed their first road test and now return home to face Western Illinois at TCF Bank Stadium. Here’s a look at the report card from Minnesota’s big road win.
Running offense: A
Despite starting running back Donnell Kirkwood not playing, Minnesota’s running game fired on all cylinders in Saturday’s win. Two Gophers rushed for over 100 yards — including quarterback Philip Nelson, who gained 122 yards on 15 carries and scored on a 1-yard touchdown run. Sophomore Rodrick Williams Jr. started in place of the dinged up Kirkwood and had his best game of his young Gophers career. Williams led all rushers with 148 yards on 16 carries — a 9.3-yard average — and also scored in the second quarter despite nearly fumbling the ball out of the end zone. Backup David Cobb was a nice compliment to Williams, gaining 56 yards on nine carries. He, too, found the end zone as his touchdown put Minnesota up 13-0 in the second quarter. The Gophers started to establish an identity Saturday as a power running game and learned that, even without Kirkwood, they have the backs who can shoulder the load.
Passing offense: C
As was the case in the season opener against UNLV, Minnesota’s passing attack wasn’t the difference maker against New Mexico State. Nelson finished just 8-for-15 for 127 yards and an interception. While he passed for more yards than he did in the opener, he attempted seven fewer passes — a byproduct of the Gophers’ running game gaining valuable yards. Nelson’s biggest pass was a 48-yarder over the middle to wide receiver Derrick Engel that set up a field goal early in the second quarter. Other than that, Nelson didn’t connect on a single pass for more than 20 yards. Junior wide receiver Logan Hutton emerged to make two catches for 26 yards after having just two catches his entire career prior to Saturday.
Running defense: A-
Minnesota’s defensive line had a strong game Saturday, and the Gophers’ defense limited New Mexico State to just 103 rushing yards on 41 carries — an average of just 2.5 yards per carry. While the Aggies did score three rushing touchdowns, all three came from just one yard out. Minnesota didn’t allow much in the way of big rushing plays; NMSU’s longest run went for 19 yards, and that was after the game was out of reach in the fourth quarter. The Gophers’ linebackers had a big part in this as the three leading tackles — Aaron Hill, Devondre Campbell and Damien Wilson — helped stop New Mexico State’s rushing attack before it could get into the secondary.
Passing defense: B-
The Gophers held the Aggies to 253 passing yards on 40 attempts as New Mexico State employed its up-tempo, no-huddle offense — much like UNLV did the week prior. NMSU was able to pick up chunks of yards through the air on occasion but never got into a rhythm with the passing game. Starting quarterback Andrew McDonald was 22-for-31 for 186 yards but did not find the end zone. Neither did backup King Davis III, who was 7-for-9 for 67 yards in garbage time late in the game. Minnesota’s secondary didn’t record an interception this week and gave up three passes of more than 20 yards, but that ultimately didn’t cost the Gophers in the long run.
Special teams: A
For the second week in a row, Minnesota scored a big touchdown on special teams. And it happened to be the same player scoring both. Junior cornerback Marcus Jones returned a punt 65 yards for a touchdown Saturday against New Mexico State. The touchdown came with 1:22 to play in the first half and gave the Gophers all sorts of momentum entering halftime. In the season opener, Jones scored on a 98-yard kickoff return. Minnesota’s kicking game was solid all night against the Aggies. Kicker Chris Hawthorne was a perfect 3-for-3 on field goals, including a 45-yarder for the first points of the game, and converted on all five extra points. Peter Mortell averaged 42.7 yards on his three punts, up from a 38.3-yard average last week. 
Overall: B
This game was never in doubt, as the Gophers scored first and didn’t let New Mexico State ever claw its way back. The biggest revelation was Minnesota’s dedication to the power running game, led by Williams’ strong performance. The Gophers now improve to 2-0 for the second year in a row and are halfway through what should be a winnable four-game non-conference schedule. Still, Minnesota was far from perfect in Saturday’s win and will need to continue to improve in some areas as the Big Ten season inches closer. But for now, the Gophers can feel good about going on the road and winning big.

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