LAS VEGAS — It took four quarters plus three overtimes, but the University of Minnesota football team escaped its season opener against UNLV with a victory, as the Gophers topped the Rebels 30-27 at Sam Boyd Stadium. For a while, Thursday’s game appeared in doubt for Gophers second-year coach Jerry Kill. Minnesota trailed 10-7 after three quarters before forcing overtime in the fourth.
In the end, the Gophers gutted out an ugly win, but a win nonetheless, and now return to campus with a 1-0 start to the season. Here are five things we learned from Minnesota’s victory Thursday in Las Vegas.
1. MarQueis Gray has yet to take a step forward.
All fall, the talk on campus was that Gray, now a senior, had taken steps forward as both a quarterback and a leader. For most of Thursday’s game, however, Gray looked to be the same quarterback he was a year ago.
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Gray missed several wide-open receivers, perhaps none more obvious than in the third quarter when Gray couldn’t find an open Andre McDonald deep down the field. McDonald got even more separation as his defender fell down, but Gray’s pass was nowhere in the area.
“We missed a lot of shots downfield and things of that nature,” Kill said.
Gray also missed tight end John Rabe twice in regulation on passes that could have resulted in touchdowns. It was the tandem of Gray and Rabe, however, that connected for touchdowns in the first and second overtimes.
“He just came up to me and said, ‘I’ll get you again,'” Rabe said of Gray. “I knew he would. I had confidence in him the whole time. The first time, maybe a little excited and added a little muscle on that last one. It’s just a great win. … MarQueis, I have all the confidence in him. He’s going to be able to come back and make good throws all the time.”
2. Donnell Kirkwood asserted himself as the starting running back — at least for now.
There was plenty of speculation as to who the Gophers’ starting running back would be for the season opener. Junior college transfer James Gillum appeared to be the frontrunner early in fall camp, but redshirt sophomore Donnell Kirkwood came on strong late in fall. On Thursday, it was Kirkwood getting the start. He finished the game with 13 carries for 81 yards, while Gillum carried the ball 14 times for 51 yards and a touchdown.
Kirkwood was plagued by injuries the past two seasons, including a nagging hamstring injury last year. But he looked healthy on Thursday as he broke off numerous runs of 10 or more yards.
“I thought they played hard,” Kill said of the running backs. “We’ll have to look at how they picked up the blitz pick-ups and things like that, but I thought Donnell ran real hard. I thought he did a good job.”
3. The Gophers still have question marks in the kicking game.
The pregame notes listed Minnesota’s starting punter as “TBA,” and it wasn’t until redshirt senior David Schwerman took the field in the first quarter for the Gophers’ first punt of the game. After seeing how Minnesota’s punters performed on Thursday, perhaps there was a reason why Kill was uncertain as to who his staring punter was.
Sophomore Christian Eldred and Schwerman shared the punting duties on Thursday. Schwerman punted twice for an average of 31 yards, while Eldred had five punts for an average of 36.8 yards — including two that landed inside the 20-yard line.
“Going in here, I just didn’t know until you put the lights on how people perform,” Kill said. “I thought Christian did a good job. He kept the ball on the pooches inside the 20. I thought he punted the ball well. I was pleased with that.”
The field goal unit looked shaky as well early on, as senior kicker Jordan Wettstein hooked a 32-yard field goal wide left late in the first half. Wettstein began the 2011 season as an unknown walk-on but assumed the kicking duties when Chris Hawthorne was out with an injury.
But Wettstein put that early miss behind him as he drilled a 32-yarder — the same distance as his miss — in the third overtime to propel the Gophers to a season-opening victory. After he nailed the kick, Wettstein was chased down the field by his team in celebration.
“I didn’t want to get tackled, so I just kept running,” Wettstein said. “I didn’t know where I was going, but I just didn’t want to get on the pile. But it felt good, though. It felt good for everybody.”
4. Derrick Wells can be a difference-maker on defense.
Wells made the switch from cornerback to safety this past offseason, putting on weight to help make the position change. Thursday was the sophomore’s first opportunity to show the type of player he can be for the Gophers.
Wells put his stamp on the game with a pair of late-game interceptions. The first came in the fourth quarter when he picked off Rebels freshman quarterback Nick Sherry. Minnesota turned it into a field goal that put the Gophers up 13-10 with 5:40 to play.
But Wells’ bigger interception took place in the third overtime. UNLV started the third overtime with the ball. On first and 10 from the 11-yard line, Sherry again was picked off by Wells, whose second interception meant that the Gophers needed only a field goal in the third overtime to win.
“He’s a big-time player. I’ve said that all along,” Kill said of Wells. “… He’s a pretty special player, there ain’t no question about that. The good thing is he proved it on game night. I’m excited. He made some big plays for us.”
5. Minnesota needs to limit its penalties on both sides of the ball.
During last year’s three-win season, silly penalties often proved costly for the Gophers. On Thursday, that nearly proved to be the case again. As a team, Minnesota committed 11 penalties for 86 yards, including two late hits out of bounds that gave UNLV extra yardage after plays. Several false start penalties — including a few on third-and-short situations — also hampered Minnesota’s offense.
“You never want penalties, and certainly dumb ones,” Kill said. “We had a couple critical penalties inside the red zone. We’ll work on getting those things corrected. But you never want dumb penalties.”