LAS VEGAS — They say a win is a win, no matter how ugly. The truth of the matter is that Thursday’s win for the University of Minnesota football team was indeed ugly.
This was a game that the Gophers were expected to win. The Las Vegas oddsmakers just a short drive from Sam Boyd Stadium pegged Minnesota as the favorites by nearly 10 points. And for a struggling Big Ten program believing it has taken steps in the right direction, nobody should have been more confident that the Gophers would win than the Gophers themselves.
Yet Minnesota didn’t necessarily look the part of a team much-improved from last year’s 3-9 finish, head coach Jerry Kill’s first season on campus. On Thursday, against a UNLV squad that won just two games in each of the past two seasons, he Gophers eked out a 30-27 win in triple overtime thanks to the foot of kicker Jordan Wettstein.
“Any time you get an opportunity to win again, you feel good about it,” Kill said. “It doesn’t matter how it gets done.”
Added Gophers senior linebacker Keanon Cooper: “An ugly win is better than a pretty loss.”
This wasn’t ideally how the second year of Kill’s rebuilding phase was supposed to begin. This year’s Gophers were supposedly bigger, faster and more athletic than the 2011 team. At times Thursday, they were. But not consistently enough.
Despite the win, there was plenty left to be desired. What unfolded Thursday in the Nevada desert was a Gophers team that didn’t do the little things correctly, a team that beat itself with silly penalties and turnovers that could have very well cost them the game.
“We kind of figured there might be some mistakes the first game of the season. Everyone’s amped up, the juices are flowing,” said senior tight end John Rabe, who caught touchdown passes in the first and second overtimes. “But I think one thing we had on that sideline was confidence. I think the whole team felt no matter what, we were going to win the game.”
Perhaps the biggest cause for concern for the Gophers was the play of senior quarterback MarQueis Gray. All offseason, Minnesota’s coaching staff raved about the progress that Gray made as both a passer and a leader. His progress as a passer was nowhere to be found Thursday. He routinely overthrew wide-open receivers, missing several opportunities at easy touchdowns in the process.
Gray does deserve credit for bouncing back in overtime, however, as he hit Rabe twice for touchdowns to keep the game alive. Still, the senior signal caller demonstrated that he hasn’t quite turned the corner. He finished the game 17-for-30 for 269 yards and the two overtime touchdowns, but the handful of overthrown passes is something he needs to correct.
“I didn’t come out like I wanted to the first half of this game,” Gray said. “Everyone else played good. I’ve just got to get better week in and week out. That’s what I plan on doing. Fortunately we came out with the win, so that’s positive.”
Mental mistakes also proved to be a trend carried over from last year, as Minnesota hurt itself several times throughout Thursday’s game. It began on the first drive of the game when Gray was intercepted in the red zone after the Gophers’ offense marched down the field with ease. Throughout the game, silly late-hit penalties by Minnesota’s defense gave the Rebels extra chances.
Senior cornerback Troy Stoudermire had what at the time appeared to be a very costly error as he muffed a punt in the second half. UNLV converted the turnover into a touchdown just a few plays later — thanks in part to a pass interference penalty by Stoudermire in the end zone on the first play after his muffed punt.
“Penalties are a part of the game, but it’s about what you do after the penalty,” Stoudermire said. “You’ve got to erase that memory and get back on the field and make another play.”
Ultimately, that’s what the Gophers did as a team. They put their numerous miscues, their missed opportunities and their self-inflicted wounds in the past once crunch time rolled around. Perhaps last year’s Minnesota squad — which went winless on the road — wouldn’t have been able to do that.
There were many little things that seemed to not go the Gophers’ way Thursday. Minnesota definitely walks away from Sam Boyd Stadium with areas to improve on.
But the bottom line is that Kill and the Gophers head back to Minnesota with a season-opening victory that won’t just stay in Vegas.
“In some ways, maybe our kids needed this as much as anything, to find a way to win when it doesn’t look very good,” Kill said. “Since I’ve been here, we haven’t had some of that fight back when things didn’t go our way. There’s a lot of things that we created that didn’t go our way and some things that just didn’t go our way and we were able to hang in there.”