The Gophers didn’t wait long Thursday night trying to get the ball to Berkley Edwards.
They won the coin toss, elected to receive and had Edwards split wide right on their second play. Quarterback Mitch Leidner threw Edwards a basic screen pass, and the ball slipped right through the redshirt freshman’s hands.
Asked later if there were opening-night nerves, Edwards said: “There was for me. I’m not sure about anybody else.”
But Edwards settled in and delivered two fourth-quarter touchdown runs, including a 42-yard scamper around the left edge. He finished with four carries for 60 yards and one reception for 2 yards in a 42-20 season-opening victory over Eastern Illinois.
“He’s lightning in a bottle,” coach Jerry Kill said. “He can flat run. I don’t know what else you can say. We’ve got to continue to find ways to get him the ball, and this is the first game he’s ever played.
“He could have gotten discouraged. He dropped a ball there early, but he came right back and we started feeding him the ball, and he did very well. We need that right now. We’ve got some good backs, but having someone who can get it over with early is a good thing for us.”
Wide receiver Drew Wolitarsky missed the game because of an injury below his right shoulder that the team doesn’t consider serious.
The Gophers actually considered having Wolitarsky suit up but decided it against it Thursday as a precaution.
Wolitarsky finished third on the team in receiving yards last year with 259 as a true freshman.
Good kicking game
Peter Mortell averaged 51.2 yards on his five punts — none of them returned — and the Gophers’ new placekicker, Ryan Santoso, boomed five of his seven kickoffs for touchbacks.
Santoso was 6-for-6 on extra points. Kill had talked about using Santoso and another redshirt freshman kicker, Andrew Harte, but Santoso handled everything himself.
“Our punter did a heck of a job changing field positions,” Kill said. “And our kicker was pretty much unreal, kicking the ball out of the end zone every time. I felt good about that. The whole kicking game, I thought, was very solid.”
Another slow start
The Gophers finally scored first in an opener, but it came after another sluggish start. In each of Kill’s four season openers at Minnesota, the Gophers have struggled in the season’s opening moments.
Last season, the Gophers trailed UNLV 6-0 and again 13-10 in the first half before pulling away. In 2012, UNLV again led 3-0 and 10-7 before losing to the Gophers in three overtimes. In Kill’s first game with Minnesota in 2011, the Gophers trailed Southern Cal 6-0 early and 19-3 at halftime.
Cobb’s solid start
Last season’s leading rusher, David Cobb, had a solid if unspectacular debut to his senior season. He saw a lot of work in the first three quarters and finished with a team-high 71 yards rushing on 14 carries — 5.1 yards a pop.
Cobb, who finished with 1,202 yards last season as a junior, figures to be one of the busiest men on the field all season, with Rodrick Williams Jr. and Edwards getting work as well.
• Tackle Ben Lauer was in uniform but did not play because of a high ankle sprain. Josh Campion started at left tackle, and Jonah Pirsig got his first career start, at right tackle.
• The Gophers had two true freshmen on the field — cornerback Craig James and tight end Brandon Lingen — as they went to receive the opening kickoff. Two more true freshmen played on the first defensive drive: nose guard Steven Richardson and defensive end Andrew Stelter. True freshman defensive end Gaelin Elmore also saw extended action, and true freshman linebacker Jonathan Celestin played, too.
• Peter Westerhaus, the former Minnesota Mr. Football whose Gophers career ended because of ulcerative colitis, led the team onto the field with a flag, wearing his No. 18 jersey.