August 30, 2012; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood (20) runs the ball against the UNLV Rebels during the first half at Sam Boyd Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
The University of Minnesota’s football season kicks off as the Gophers host the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels Thursday at TCF Bank Stadium.
The two teams met in the opener last season and Minnesota won 30-27 on a game-winning field goal in the third overtime. In that game, Minnesota was lead on offense by quarterback MarQueis Gray, who threw for 269 yards and two touchdowns while also rushing for 68 yards.
But this year, the Gophers have a new quarterback and higher expectations for the season. Philip Nelson took over the quarterback position halfway through last season and ended up splitting time with Gray and former Gopher Max Shortell, but this season, the offense belongs to Nelson.
Head coach Jerry Kill has said that they are looking to use their power running game more often and will likely rely on running back Donnell Kirkwood to accomplish that. In last year’s matchup, Kirkwood ran for 81 yards on 13 carries. Look for the Gophers to give Kirkwood the ball early and often to establish the running game.
Where the Gophers struggled last year was on third down conversions and converting drives into touchdowns. The Gophers only scored one touchdown in regulation but did score two in overtime playing on a shortened field.
The Gophers defense will have to deal with UNLV’s playmakers if they want to win this game. Quarterback Nick Sherry really struggled against the Gophers last year, completing only 46 percent of his passes and throwing three interceptions. Sherry did finish the season throwing 2,544 yards and 16 touchdowns but he completed just over 50 percent of his passes and he was intercepted 17 times last year.
Minnesota’s defense will also need to look out for running back Tim Cornett who ran for 1,232 yards last season, averaging 5.1 yards per carry.
The Gophers were the better team in 2012 and they are the better team this year too. Playing at home should give the Gophers a boost and they should play better as a unit than they did in the game last season. There is also the fact that UNLV haven’t won a road game since October 24 2009 – that’s 22 straight road losses.