The Gophers football team was sweating, and it wasn’t just the heat.
It entered Thursday night’s season opener against UNLV as a 14-point favorite and went to the locker room at halftime fortunate to have a three-point lead.
It had been 92 degrees at the game’s outset and was still stifling as the sun set over the Minneapolis skyline. But the second half opened with coolest burst of fresh air the Gophers could imagine.
Marcus Jones, who has overcome torn anterior cruciate ligaments in both knees, returned UNLV’s kick 98 yards for a touchdown. It was the first of three long touchdown returns by the Gophers in the second half, as they pulled away for a 51-23 victory before an announced crowd of 44,217 at TCF Bank Stadium.
“Minnesota’s not used to the heat like that,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “I think it sapped us a little bit early. I think depth kind of saved us. We had some kids that stepped up that had to do it, or we’d have been in trouble.”
Midway through the third quarter, UNLV kicker Nolan Kohorst lined up a 47-yard field-goal attempt that could have trimmed the Gophers’ lead to 23-16. Ra’Shede Hageman burst in to block it, and all of a sudden, it looked like the Gophers basketball team running the fast break.
Hageman dribbled the ball forward, Martez Shabazz scooped it up and sprinted 51 yards for a touchdown, making it 30-13.
“I’m not as fast as I was in high school,” said Hageman, who played basketball and football at Minneapolis Washburn. “So I wasn’t able to run and scoop and score. But I just had that football knowledge, keep the play moving and have Shabazz pick it up.”
Briean Boddy-Calhoun added to the fun in the fourth quarter, picking off a pass by Nick Sherry and racing 89 yards for a touchdown. Boddy-Calhoun got the start at cornerback, filling in for the injured Derrick Wells.
“Briean’s a good football player,” Kill said. “I thought he was going to run out of gas there. I’m glad [linebacker] Aaron Hill hustled down the field to kind of get in [Sherry’s] way.”
The Gophers eventually got what they needed. The first half was a test, but the night was far less stressful than last year’s opener at UNLV, where the Rebels pushed them to triple overtime before eventually succumbing 30-27.
The Gophers made sure UNLV didn’t end its 23-game road losing streak, which dates to Oct. 24, 2009.
But they trailed 13-10 until quarterback Philip Nelson led the two-minute offense on a scoring drive toward the end of the first half. On third-and-goal from the 10-yard line, Nelson checked off one receiver and hit redshirt freshman tight end Maxx Williams for a touchdown with 18 seconds remaining before the break.
It was Williams’ first career reception, and he made a nice lunging catch, keeping himself inbounds.
Nelson had an up-and-down first half. He threw an interception and had a key fumble at the 1-yard line that caused the Gophers to settle for a field goal on their second drive. But he also had a 48-yard touchdown run and came up with some big passes, including the touchdown to Williams.
The Rebels took a 13-10 lead midway through the second quarter with a big play on fourth down. Sherry scrambled and found Devante Davis for a 34-yard touchdown pass. That was one of three successful fourth-down conversions in the first half for UNLV.
Shabazz was covering Davis on that play and let him get free. But Shabazz atoned when he delivered the Gophers’ first touchdown off a blocked field goal since Traye Simmons had one on Oct. 10, 2009, against Purdue.
“Everybody was telling me to keep my head in the game,” Shabazz said. “I was just waiting for the ball to bounce, and it just happened. It was like a dream, actually. It was Ra’Shede who knocked it out there. I told him thank you for that.”
Nelson finished the game with 83 yards rushing and completed 10 of 22 passes for 99 yards. With a comfortable lead, the Gophers were able to give backup quarterback Mitch Leidner his first college snaps late in the fourth quarter.
Leidner rushed for a 4-yard touchdown on Minnesota’s final drive, as the Gophers finished with their highest point total in a game at TCF Bank Stadium, which opened in 2009. They had scored 44 points on two previous occasions.
“There was a lot of good things that happened out there,” Kill said. “The most important one is we won the game.”