Big plays propel Gophers past UNLV


It's one of football's unwritten rules: If a team scores two touchdowns on special teams and another on defense, it virtually can't lose.

When two of those touchdowns sandwich halftime, a win becomes even more secure.

Minnesota scored the trifecta Thursday night and quickly made a shaky game against UNLV turn into a rout. The Golden Gophers used big plays in all three phases and a huge second half to pound the Rebels 51-23 at TCF Bank Stadium. They set a stadium scoring record and eclipsed 50 points for the first time since 2006.

The lopsided score and Minnesota's dominance after halftime made it easy to forget that UNLV outplayed the Gophers in the first half and led 16-13 after recording a 34-yard touchdown on fourth down with 5:04 left in the half. But Minnesota stepped up in one of the most important stretches of any game: at the end of the second quarter and the beginning of the third.

Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson, who showed off his mobility all night, made a terrific touchdown pass to tight end Maxx Williams with 18 seconds left in the half. Marcus Jones then had a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown to open the third quarter.

Minnesota coach Jerry Kill told the Big Ten Network that he kept calm at halftime and stressed the need for big plays. Message received. Minutes after Jones' return, Gophers standout defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman blocked a 37-yard field goal attempt, and Martez Shabazz scooped it up and raced 51 yards to the end zone. Early in the fourth quarter, Briean Boddy-Calhoun stifled a good UNLV drive by returning an interception 89 yards to the end zone.

Minnesota also received a 48-yard touchdown run from Nelson and a 60-yard scamper from David Cobb that set up a late score from backup quarterback Mitch Leidner.

So it was a night of big plays for Minnesota, which avoided the tension it went through in last year's opener against UNLV. But the Gophers have a lot to work on after the opener. The offense didn't dominate the line of scrimmage and the run game outside of Nelson was suspect. Top back Donnell Kirkwood left the game in the third quarter with what appeared to be a right ankle injury.

Minnesota must be more physical at the line of scrimmage on offense and get off the field more on defense, as UNLV piled up 418 yards and went 4-for-4 on fourth down.

Big plays win games and the Gophers had more than enough Thursday night. But they'll need to be more polished on both sides of the ball before a Week 4 test against David Fales and San Jose State.