Gophers report card: Good start but work left to do

MINNEAPOLIS — For the first half of Thursday’s season opener, it looked as if the Gophers might not receive many passing grades as they led lowly UNLV by just three points at halftime. But Minnesota exploded for 35 second-half points to rout the visiting Rebels and earn solid grades all across the board. Here’s a look at the report card for the Gophers’ 51-23 victory in the 2013 season opener.

Running offense: B
Minnesota was led on the ground by quarterback Philip Nelson, who gained 83 yards on 12 carries. That included a 48-yard scamper for a touchdown in the first half, one of Nelson’s two rushing touchdowns. Meanwhile, starting running back Donnell Kirkwood left the game with an ankle injury and did not return. He had just 30 yards on 11 carries. In his absence, David Cobb and Rodrick Williams picked up the slack. Cobb had a big 60-yard run to finish with 69 yards on six carries, while Williams had just four touches for 13 yards. After the game, coach Jerry Kill seemed concerned with running back depth if Kirkwood isn’t able to go next weekend. 
Passing offense: C
As good as Nelson was on the ground in Thursday’s win, he left something to be desired through the air. The sophomore finished just 10-for-22 for 99 yards and an interception, but he did find freshman tight end Maxx Williams for a 10-yard touchdown on a nice play in the first half. Still, the Gophers’ aerial attack never got into much of a rhythm. Only one receiver — sophomore KJ Maye — had more than two catches. Nelson was inaccurate at times, underthrowing receivers a few times while also missing a few open looks. There was not much of a deep threat Thursday, as Nelson’s longest pass of the game went for 21 yards. This facet of Minnesota’s game should take a step forward next week, but the Gophers still need to find another playmaker at wide receiver who can step up and be a go-to target for Nelson.
Running defense: B
UNLV’s ground game wasn’t much of a factor Thursday, partially due to the fact that Rebels quarterback Nick Sherry attempted 50 passes. UNLV gained 193 rushing yards on 34 carries — a 5.7-yard average. But those numbers were skewed a bit by a 64-yard run by Shaquille Murray-Lawrence in garbage time during the fourth quarter. Rebels starting running back Tim Cornett had 80 yards on 20 carries and did break one run for 26 yards for a touchdown on UNLV’s opening drive. Minnesota’s linebacking corps was a big question mark entering the season, but that unit held its own against the run Thursday. Junior college transfer Damien Wilson was second on the team with seven tackles, including half a tackle-for-loss. 
Passing defense: B-
UNLV quarterback Nick Sherry passed early and often, finishing the game with 50 passing attempts. He converted 35 of those for 226 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Minnesota’s secondary looked shaky at times and gave up a big 34-yard touchdown pass in the first half. But playing without starting cornerback Derrick Wells, the Gophers’ pass defense tightened up in the second half and picked off Sherry twice in the fourth quarter. One of those was returned 89 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun, while Antonio Johnson had the other interception. Minnesota needs to get better pressure up front in order to help out the secondary; Sherry seemingly had all day to throw for the better part of Thursday’s game.
Special teams: A
This unit won the game for Minnesota. Leading by just three at halftime, the Gophers scored a pair of special teams touchdowns early in the second half to take control of the game and put UNLV in the rearview mirror. It began with Marcus Jones’ 98-yard kickoff return to open the second half. That gave Minnesota a 10-point cushion. Later in the third quarter, Ra’Shede Hageman blocked UNLV’s field goal attempt and Martez Shabazz scooped it and scored on a 51-yard runback. As it turned out, Minnesota’s two biggest scoring plays came not from the offense but courtesy of its special teams. Chris Hawthorne handled kicking duties and had three touchbacks on nine kickoffs while making one of his two field goal tries; the one miss was a 50-yarder. Peter Mortell got his first start at punter and averaged 38.3 yards per kick on three punts.
Overall: B
Things looked ugly for a while Thursday as the Gophers barely held an edge over a UNLV team that had lost 22 straight road games prior to its trip to Minneapolis. This was a game Minnesota needed to dominate. Finally, in the second half, it did thanks to several big plays by the special teams and defense. There’s no doubt Kill will find plenty of things to critique when he watches the film, as the Gophers were far from perfect in the opener. The passing game remains a work in progress, and Minnesota has to figure out its running back situation if Kirkwood’s injury costs him and games. For as lackluster as Thursday’s first half was, though, Minnesota was certainly impressive in the second half as it pulled away for a win to start the season 1-0.

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