Following Saturday night’s 44-21 victory at New Mexico State, the Gophers bused to El Paso International Airport, flew back to the Twin Cities and returned to the Bierman facility about 4:30 a.m.
They were bleary-eyed and far from satisfied, but it felt good to be 2-0.
The victories have come against two teams that are a combined 13-66 over the past four seasons. UNLV followed its season-opening loss at Minnesota by getting pummeled 58-13 at home against Arizona on Saturday. And before playing the Gophers, New Mexico State suffered a 56-7 defeat at Texas.
But the Gophers did what they had to do against both opponents, winning by an average of 25.5 points. They have amassed 40 points in back-to-back weeks for the first time since 2007, and they scored touchdowns in each game on offense, defense and special teams.
They played both games in severe heat and showed good discipline each night, committing five penalties and two turnovers combined.
“If we continue that type of football, that’s the formula to success,” coach Jerry Kill said Sunday.
At New Mexico State, the Gophers proved they could win in a foreign environment, although Aggie Memorial Stadium had about 99,000 fewer fans than Michigan holds in the Big House, site of Minnesota’s next road game, on Oct. 5.
Before then, the Gophers have home games against Western Illinois, San Jose State and Iowa. They’ll know more about themselves after that stretch, but here are a few other things we’ve already learned:
• They have much-needed depth at running back and cornerback. Two top running backs, Donnell Kirkwood and Berkley Edwards, have sprained ankles, but Rodrick Williams (8.1 yards per carry) and David Cobb (8.3) have kept the offense moving.
The team’s top cornerback, Derrick Wells, missed the first game because of a hamstring injury and came off the bench without making a tackle Saturday. His replacement, Briean Boddy-Calhoun, twisted a knee against New Mexico State and the team was awaiting his MRI results.
“[The medical staff] seemed to think he’d be back in a couple weeks, but you never know with those things,” Kill said.
Meantime, Martez Shabazz and Marcus Jones have helped fill the cornerback holes, racking up six tackles apiece.
• Speaking of Jones, he has emerged as a weapon on returns. Fully healed after major surgery to both knees, he had a 98-yard kickoff return touchdown against UNLV and added a 65-yard punt return touchdown Saturday.
“He plays bigger than what he is,” Kill said of the 5-8, 166-pound Jones. “He’s a good football player.”
• Their two junior college transfers at linebacker are learning fast. Damien Wilson and De’Vondre Campbell had eight tackles apiece Saturday, tying for second most on the team behind Aaron Hill.
• They are going to run their quarterbacks as much as the defense lets them. Nelson leads the team in rushing attempts (27), rushing yards (205) and rushing touchdowns (three), and the Gophers kept running him Saturday, even after he dinged his right shoulder.
The Gophers run a basic zone-read play, which enables Nelson to read the outside defender before deciding whether to hand off the ball or keep it. UNLV and New Mexico State seemed to have no answer.
“That’s the play that we were able to gash [New Mexico State] with a whole bunch,” Nelson said. “They had a tough time figuring that one out, so I knew right away we were going to continue calling that.”
After going 4-0 in nonconference play last year — defeating UNLV, New Hampshire, Western Michigan and Syracuse — the Gophers look fully capable of reaching that mark again.
Western Illinois is a member of the NCAA’s Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA), and then comes a much tougher test against San Jose State. The Spartans, who have a top NFL quarterback prospect in David Fales, went 11-2 last year and didn’t embarrass themselves Saturday in a 34-13 loss to No. 5 Stanford.
When the Gophers stepped off the plane early Sunday morning, their first priority was sleep, but Kill said they’d be back to work by late afternoon.