The Minnesota Golden Gophers pulled away from the UNLV Rebels in the second half with the help of three touchdown returns en route to a 51-23 victory.
Marcus Jones provided the Gophers with the jolt it needed both late in the first half and then again to open the second half.
The junior has taken over the punt and kick return duties after missing most of his first two seasons with a pair of ACL surgeries.
“When we left the locker room I said, ‘Somebody is going to have to step up and make a play. We’ve got to make some big plays. We are capable of that. Loosen up and go play,” Kill said. “Boom it happened on the opening kickoff of the second half. It couldn’t have happened to a better kid.”
Jones made the biggest play of the game with a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown on the opening kick of the second half that extended the Gopher lead to double digits.
Minutes early, he returned a punt to the Aggie-39 yard line within the final two minutes of the first half. The return set up tight end Maxx Williams’ 10-yard touchdown catch with 18 seconds remaining. The redshirt freshman’s first career catch gave the Gophers its first lead. A lead it would not relinquish.
The Gophers extended its lead with two more return touchdowns to three scores early in the fourth quarter.
Defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman blew up the line of scrimmage to block a Nolan Kohorst field goal attempt. Martez Shabazz eventually scooped up the loose ball and ran for a 51-yard score.
Briean Boddy-Calhoun continued the onslaught with an 89-yard interception return with 10 minutes
Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson recorded a team-high 83 yards and three scores, including two rushing touchdowns.
The Gophers (1-0) struggled through the first three quarters to build a rhythm on offense or slow down the no-huddle offense.
“We have a young football and I think it took them a while to get used the weather and the no-huddle and all that stuff,” Kill said.
The Rebels (0-1) held a substantial edge in total offense (419-320) and passing offense (226-99). The Rebels also had the advantage in rushing yards until the Gophers pulled ahead 221-193 in the fourth quarter.
“When I look up at the scoreboard going into their last drive and saw that we had 420 yards and they 234, the score on the board doesn’t correlate with that so we have to delve into why that is,” Rebels coach Bobby Hauck said. “Certainly in any game, particularly on the road, you can’t give up three touchdowns on offensive functions – that’s the obvious story of the game.”
The Gophers hit the road for its first road game of the season Sept. 7 against the New Mexico State Aggies in Las Cruces.
Players of the Game
Offense – Philip Nelson. The sophomore quarterback recorded three touchdowns, including two on the ground.
Defense – Briean Boddy-Calhoun. The junior cornerback gave the Gophers a big lead in the third quarterback with an interception for a touchdown.
Special Teams – Marcus Jones. The junior cornerback had two big returns, one for a touchdown.
UNLV 6 7 3 7 – 23
Minnesota 3 13 14 21 – 51
UNLV – Cornett 26 run (Kohorst kick blocked).
Minnesota – Hawthorne 25 kick.
Minnesota – Nelson 49 run (Hawthorne kick).
UNLV – Davis 34 pass from Sherry (Kohorst kick).
Minnesota – Williams 10 pass from Nelson (Hawthorne kick missed).
Minnesota – Jones 98 kick return (Hawthorne kick).
Minnesota – Shabazz 51 block field goal return (Hawthorne kick).
UNLV – Kohorst 27 kick.
Minnesota – Boddy-Calhoun 89 interception return (Hawthorne kick).
Minnesota – Nelson 5 run (Hawthorne kick).
UNLV – Barnhill 1 pass from Sherry (Kohorst kick).
Minnesota – Leidner 4 run (Hawthorne kick).