Gophers’ special teams, defense stepped up at the right moment against UNLV


Aug 29, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; UNLV Rebels linebacker Tani Maka (41) tackles Minnesota Golden Gophers running back Donnell Kirkwood (20) in the first quarter against the UNLV Rebels at TCF Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Marcus Jones laughed it off with the media after the game on the idea that he had lost a step coming off two major knee surgeries.

“Does it look like I have?”

His 98-yard touchdown run to open the second half against UNLV was a jumping off point for his teammates towards an impressive final two quarters of football, especially after a shaky start by Minnesota.

The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers accomplished their goal of defeating Nevada-Las Vegas under the lights at TCF Bank Stadium on Thursday night. The team rolled up 51 total points in front of the announced crowd of 44,217 on a steamy night.

The Minnesota offense under head coach Jerry Kill produced less than half of that point total as it was the defense and special teams that put the Gophers in the win column on the night.

After the game, Kill talked about the defense and special team play that led to three scores in the second half:

"“They don’t get much bigger than that. We talk about how important our coverage teams are and our return teams are. It couldn’t happen to a better person than what Marcus Jones has been through. Two ACL injuries and it was well executed. I think maybe one guy got his hand on him. The special teams are so important and I’m not sure who kept the ball rolling on Ra’Shede’s block but whoever did that… that’s tremendous football playing.”"

That tremendous football play to keep the ball rolling was senior defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman, who blocked a Runnin’ Rebels field goal in the third quarter and proceeded to punch the ball into open space where senior defensive back Martez Shabazz scooped up the loose pigskin and scampered 51-yards to the end zone.

The Gophers scored three straight times without the help of the offense with the Jones return, the Shabazz punt recovery, and an 89-yard interception return for a touchdown by junior defensive back Briean Boddy-Calhoun. The defensive secondary showed impressive depth on the night, even though junior defensive back Derrick Wells sat the game out with an injury.

“It was initially a whip route and as he went on the slant I was right on his hip. I rolled with him and once I saw the ball had been thrown, I jumped the route,” said Boddy-Calhoun when asked about the interception. It’s opportunity plays like that from a good secondary that should keep Minnesota in ball games all season.

With Wells out, Boddy-Calhoun was thrust into the starting cornerback position along with sophomore Eric Murray.

Defensively Minnesota gave up 419 yards of total offense on the night to UNLV, but three straight non-offensive touchdowns by the Gophers, gave UNLV plenty of time to accumulate meaningless yards.

The Gophers did get burned on some big plays in the first half and according to Kill, the heat of the night might have played a factor.

“As you know Minnesota is not used to the heat like that, UNLV may be a little bit more used to it, and I think it zapped us a little bit early,” said Kill post-game.

As for the Minnesota offense, the next few weeks could be trying as junior running back Donnell Kirkwood went down with an ankle injury in the third quarter. The possible loss of Kirkwood to the offense should not hurt them over the next two weeks, but without the 900-yard rusher from a year ago, Minnesota will have a tough time against stronger Big Ten competition.

“That’s part of football, we put the next one up, next man up,” said Kill. “David Cobb did a nice job today. Roderick Williams has had a ton of experience … Cole Banham, James Gillum, whoever, you know they have to step up.”

“You just hope the next guy up does a good job.”

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