Gophers’ pass defense earns praise

LAS VEGAS — It was a game that probably shouldn’t have taken three overtimes to decide a winner, but in the end, the University of Minnesota football team emerged victorious with a 30-27 win over host UNLV. The Gophers received passing grades in every category, but some aspects of Minnesota’s effort scored higher than others. Here’s a look at the report card from Thursday’s season-opening win.

Running offense: B+
Early on, Minnesota was effective with the running game as redshirt sophomore Donnell Kirkwood found plenty of room to run. Kirkwood ran five times for 41 yards in the first half, including a few runs of 10 or more yards. He finished with 81 yards on 13 carries. The Gophers also got good production out of James Gillum, who ran 14 times for 51 yards and had Minnesota’s lone touchdown in regulation, a 16-yard scamper. And quarterback MarQueis Gray was effective with his legs, taking off 17 times for a total of 68 yards. While the Gophers’ passing attack looked shaky, its ground game was an encouraging sign.

Passing offense: C-
From the get-go, Gray never looked comfortable throwing the ball Thursday against the UNLV defense. On Minnesota’s opening drive, Gray was intercepted in the red zone after his pass was tipped. The interception killed what had been a successful Gophers drive. The rest of the night, Gray was routinely overthrowing his receivers, including several missed passes that could have resulted in touchdowns. Gray calmed down in overtime, connecting with tight end John Rabe for touchdowns in the first and second overtimes. He finished 17-for-30 for 269 yards. Still, Gray’s shaky season debut has to be a bit of a concern for Minnesota.

Running defense: C
UNLV’s featured back, Tim Cornett, ran the ball 25 times for 127 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His longest run was a 25-yarder that helped set up the game-tying field goal late in the fourth quarter. Rebels running back Bradley Randle had 10 carries for 45 yards but didn’t have the same impact on the game as Cornett. Minnesota had one of the most porous rushing defenses in the Big Ten last season, allowing 186.4 yards per game on the ground. That number was down Thursday as UNLV finished with 159 rushing yards on 37 carries.

Passing defense: A-
Minnesota had just four interceptions throughout the entire 2011 season. Safety Derrick Wells had half of that in Thursday’s win. Wells picked off Rebels freshman quarterback Nick Sherry twice, including once in the third overtime. The Gophers’ defensive line also got to Sherry twice, as Ra’Shede Hageman and D.L. Wilhite both registered sacks. Sherry, playing in his first college game, finished just 16-for-35 for 116 yards and a touchdown. Just as important for the Gophers was that their defense did not allow a big play — Sherry’s longest pass went for only 20 yards.

Special teams: C-
The game was won on special teams when kicker Jordan Wettstein drilled a 32-yard field goal in the third overtime. But Minnesota’s special teams unit was also the reason that Thursday’s game went to three overtimes. Wettstein missed an identical 32-yarder earlier in the game when he hooked it wide left. Senior cornerback Troy Stoudermire turned the ball over after he muffed a third-quarter punt, which resulted in a UNLV touchdown just a few plays later. And Minnesota’s punting game left much to be desired, as punters Christian Eldred and David Schwerman averaged just 35.1 yards per punt on seven total punts.

Overall: C+
It certainly wasn’t pretty, but as linebacker Keanon Cooper said, an ugly win was better than a “pretty loss” for the Gophers in their season opener. Minnesota’s three-point victory at Sam Boyd Stadium was the first road win for second-year coach Jerry Kill, who went 0-5 away from TCF Bank Stadium a year ago. There will be plenty of things for Kill and his staff to correct heading into next week’s game against New Hampshire, but the important thing is the Gophers return to Dinkytown 1-0, not 0-1.

Follow Tyler Mason on Twitter.