The University of Minnesota football team opened up its 2013 season by rolling to a 51-23 win over visiting UNLV. Despite a close game at halftime, the Gophers poured on in the second half to start the year 1-0. Now Minnesota has its first road test of the year as it travels to face New Mexico State, a team that beat the Gophers two years ago in Minneapolis.
Leading up to Minnesota's second game, I answer your questions in the second installment of the weekly Gophers Mailbag. Thanks to everyone who submitted their questions.
Q: For most of the UNLV game the offense appeared to be out of sync, yet at the end of the game they put up 35 points. Should this be seen as a positive that an out-of-sync offense can score 35 or should we be concerned with the fact that they really appeared out of sync?
-- D.J., Edina, Minn.
A: Yes, Minnesota went on to score 35 points in the second half, but not much of the credit goes to the offense finding a rhythm. Instead, it was a handful of big plays that sparked the Gophers' scoring burst after halftime. It began when Marcus Jones returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown to open the third quarter, which gave Minnesota a 10-point lead. Seven minutes later, cornerback Martez Shabazz returned a blocked field goal 51 yards for a touchdown. The nearly in the third quarter, Briean Boddy-Calhoun picked off a Nick Sherry pass and ran it back 89 yards, all the way to the end zone for a 37-16 Gophers lead.
Just like that, three big second-half plays totally changed the course of the game. And Minnesota's offense was standing on the sideline for all three plays.
The Gophers' offense did ad two touchdowns late in the fourth quarter, but by that point the game was well out of hand. Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson ran in for a 5-yard score, while redshirt freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner scored on a 4-yard run with 42 seconds to play. Neither offensive touchdown did much to help fans overlook the lackluster performance by the offense in the first half.
It was the first game, and for Nelson it was just his eighth career start. He should establish a better rhythm with the offense as the season goes on. Last Thursday against UNLV, though, the Gophers were able to win -- and win big -- without the offense being in sync. That won't be the case once Big Ten play comes, however, so that's no doubt a theme to watch over the next few games.
Q: Why didn't they put Mitch Leidner in sooner to get him more game time experience?
-- Chuck, Chicago
A: I, too, was surprised that Leidner didn't get into the game sooner. He didn't come into the game until Minnesota's final offensive series with under four minutes remaining and didn't attempt a pass. Still, Leidner helped the Gophers march down the field to score one last touchdown -- on his 4-yard scamper.
Kill admitted after the game that he would have liked to have gotten Leidner in the game sooner but said the game didn't dictate it, given how UNLV was running a no-huddle offense.
Minnesota is high on Leidner and the ability the Lakeville native has. That's evident by the fact that they redshirted him to give him a year to learn and retain his four years of eligibility. With three non-conference games to go before the Big Ten season starts, there's a good chance Leidner will see a decent amount of playing time. You'd have to think that if the Gophers win another blowout, he'll get in the game sooner than the final four minutes.
Q: How come the Gophers corners gave UNLV receivers too much space between them so their quarterback kept completing quick passes? How do we expect our D-line to get to their QB?
-- Jackie P., Coon Rapids, Minn.
A: Much of that had to do with the type of offense UNLV ran -- an up-tempo, no-huddle style. For the first half, Minnesota's secondary had trouble adjusting to that and, as you noted, gave up yardage on short passes. The Rebels marched down the field on their opening possession for a 75-yard, 13-play scoring drive.
That quick-strike offense is also one reason why you didn't see as much pressure on UNLV quarterback Nick Sherry, who was 35-for-50 for 226 yards and two touchdowns. Alex Keith did sack Sherry once for an 11-yard loss, and the Gophers did have nine tackles for loss. Despite getting gouged underneath early, Minnesota's secondary did a nice job of preventing the big passing plays -- something that has been a problem in years past. Sherry's longest completion of the day went for 34 yards and a touchdown, his only pass of the game that went for more than 15 yards.
Keep in mind that the Gophers were playing without top cornerback Derrick Wells, who missed the game with an injury. In his absence, though, Minnesota's secondary did come up with two interceptions -- including the previously-mentioned pick-six by Boddy-Calhoun. So while UNLV's quick-paced offense gained yardage early on, Minnesota's defense did adjust in the second half.
Q: Do you think Philip Nelson's ability to run is actually hurting his development as a passer? I know he's still green, but it seems like when he gets a little heat on him, he takes off instead of going through his progressions and maneuvering in the pocket.
-- Morgan, Fargo, N.D.
A: First, it's important to remember that Thursday's game was just his eighth career college start. So even though he's starting as a sophomore, he has less than a full season's worth of experience to draw from.
With that said, we did see Nelson run quite a big against UNLV last Thursday -- and even more than he expected to run, despite the Gophers employing a zone-read option offense. Nelson wound up with the most carries of any Minnesota player, tucking the ball and running 12 times for 83 yards and a pair of touchdowns. One of those was a 48-yard dash up the middle for Minnesota's first touchdown -- and first lead -- of the game early in the second quarter. As Thursday showed, Nelson has the ability to run the ball.
But his arm was inaccurate at times in the win. He completed just 10 of 22 passes, a rate that no doubt needs to improve. And he threw for only 99 yards and also had an interception in the first half. As you mentioned, Nelson often took off running instead of going through his reads and finding the open receiver. But it's worth noting that Nelson's first touchdown pass -- a 10-yarder to tight end Maxx Williams in the end zone -- came while Nelson was rolled out of the pocket.
Again, Nelson is still learning and adjusting to facing college defenses, but showed a few flashes in Thursday's win. If running back Donnell Kirkwood is not healthy for Saturday's game, that may mean Nelson runs the ball a few more times. Still, Nelson will need to get on the same page with his receivers on Saturday, something he failed to do well against UNLV.
Q: Status of injuries heading into the weekend?
--Russ C., Alexandria, Minn.
A: The Gophers entered the season opener with a few injuries and ended the game with a few more. The biggest of those is starting running back Donnell Kirkwood, who suffered an ankle injury on his 11th carry of the game. He did not return to action, giving way to running backs David Cobb, Rodrick Williams and Cole Banham. Kirkwood's status for Saturday's game at New Mexico State remains uncertain.
"How long that'll take to heal, we'll have to see," Kill said Tuesday. "He's out of the boot. He's walking pretty good. But as you know, as a skill player you've got to be able to plant, cut and do those kind of things. So we'll have to see how that works out."
If Cobb and Williams can carry the load Saturday, it doesn't make much sense to rush Kirkwood back. He has a history of injuries during his time at Minnesota but stayed relatively healthy last year. An ankle injury is something that can linger, though, so the Gophers will no doubt be cautious. That's also the case with freshman running back Berkley Edwards, who missed the opener with an ankle injury. Kill said Edwards is "making progress" but it doesn't sound as if he'll play Saturday.
Cornerback Derrick Wells missed the season opener against UNLV but returned to practice early this week, a good sign. Tight end Drew Goodger was dinged up in Thursday's win after he made two catches for 30 yards. Kill said Tuesday that he expects Goodger to be good to go Saturday.
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