Gophers reaping rewards from Kill’s coaching

MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota football team had an easy time with visiting New Hampshire on Saturday, routing the Wildcats by a 44-7 final. So for the second week in a row, the Gophers earned passing grades in all facets of the game as they improved to 2-0 for the first time since 2009. Here’s a look at the grades from Saturday’s home opener.

Running offense: B

Minnesota seems to have found its go-to running back in redshirt sophomore Donnell Kirkwood. After splitting carries with junior college transfer James Gillum in the season opener against UNLV, Kirkwood got the bulk of the carries out of the backfield on Saturday. He rushed for 70 yards on 17 carries, including a two-yard touchdown. Gillum, meanwhile, had just five carries for one yard and lost a fumble. The key to the Gophers’ running game Saturday, however, was quarterback MarQueis Gray, who picked up 109 yards rushing. Gray’s biggest run of the day was a career-long 75-yard run that ended in a touchdown. Gray carried the ball 17 times. Take away his long run, though, and Gray averaged just 2.1 yards per carry.

Passing offense: B+

While Gray had a big day rushing, he was also very effective in the passing game. He didn’t put up huge numbers — he completed six passes on just eight attempts for 100 yards — but he was efficient when he did throw. Gray connected on a deep touchdown to a wide-open Isaac Fruechte for 27 yards, and later hit tight end John Rabe for a 33-yard pass down the middle that set up a short score through the air to Rabe. With the game well in hand in the second half, backup quarterback Max Shortell got his first snaps of the season and was 5-for-6 for 72 yards and a touchdown to wide receiver A.J. Barker. It was an encouraging sign to see Shortell able to move the ball down the field with ease.

Running defense: A

One week after allowing 159 rushing yards against UNLV, Minnesota’s rushing defense stepped up Saturday. New Hampshire finished the game with just 68 yards on the ground. Part of that was the fact that the Wildcats were playing from behind for almost the entire game. Still, Minnesota’s defense only gave up a few big runs. UNH’s longest rush of the day was a 27-yard carry by Nico Steriti. Chris Setian also had a carry of 16 yards. Other than that, the Gophers’ rushing defense held its own as New Hampshire’s running game was a non-factor.

Passing defense: B+

New Hampshire starting quarterback Sean Goldrich was knocked out early after just two passes. Backup Andy Vailas finished the game 18-for-34 for 158 yards. This came one week after the Gophers held UNLV quarterback Nick Sherry to just 116 yards and three interceptions. Minnesota did intercept Vailas once as Martez Shabazz recorded his first interception as a Gopher. The Minnesota defensive line also got to the quarterback four times, including a pair of sacks by Ra’Shede Hageman.

Special teams: B+

Kicker Jordan Wettstein missed his only field goal attempt, a 52-yarder late in the first half. He had the distance on the kick but pushed it wide right. Punter Christian Eldred averaged 42 yards per punt on his four kicks in the game — none of which were returned — to help Minnesota win the field position battle. The Gophers also forced a safety on special teams after New Hampshire botched a snap on a punt in its own end zone. Barker returned three punts for 47 yards, including a 19-yard return.

Overall: A-

It’s been a while since Minnesota was on the winning end of a rout, but Saturday’s game was never in question as the Gophers led from start to finish. In doing so, Jerry Kill’s team is 2-0 and has momentum going into next Saturday’s home game against Western Michigan. While the result was lopsided, the Gophers admit that there are plenty of things they need to work on this week. Still, 2-0 has to feel a lot better than 0-2, which is how Minnesota started Kill’s first season a year ago.

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