Gophers coach Jerry Kill has always believed that if he’s going to take Minnesota on the upward path he dreams of, the little things need to become big.
As it is, the Gophers have a long ways to go to find the ultimate success they crave. But Thursday’s impressive special teams effort in a 51-23 win over UNLV was an early sign that Kill’s words are finding eager ears, and the triumphs provided an early exclamation point for a team that still has a lot of question marks.
Minnesota’s special teams combined for two touchdowns, including one on a blocked field goal by Ra’Shede Hageman that was returned all the way, and also had a blocked extra point attempt from Roland Johnson.
The pair of special teams scores came within seven minutes of the start of the second half, effectively shifting the game’s momentum and instigating the Gophers’ 35-point second half.
“That’s how you can turn around football programs — you have to do that,” Kill said. “It’s valuable. There’s three phases to football and to win games you’ve got to be able to make plays in the kicking game.”
With Minnesota clinging to a 16-13 lead at halftime, Marcus Jones came out of the gate with exactly the lift his team needed. On the opening kickoff, Jones secured the ball and ignited his impressive speed, dodging several defenders en route to a 98-yard return for a touchdown.
“The kickoff return was a huge boost to my confidence,” Jones said. Two possessions later, the special teams unit was able to strike again. With UNLV attempting a 37-yard field goal to help reduce the Gophers’ 10-point advantage, Hageman was able to block the kick and push the ball out to where Martez Shabazz could snatch it and run 51 yards for the score.
“I knew I was the scoop guy,” 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.”
With the Gophers’ offense looking somewhat flat in the first half, the special teams effort was a major boost and relieved the pressure on Philip Nelson and Co. The positive vibes continued all evening for special teams, which also had a couple of other nice returns from Jones, including one where he ran a punt back 15 yards to set up the Gophers’ final drive of the first half in which Maxx Williams scored a touchdown, and from Williams, who had a nice 14-yard return in the second half, bowling over a couple of defenders in the process.
“As an offense, we had our ups and our downs,” Nelson said. “The defense and the special teams, they saved us. That’s what Coach Kill preaches all the time — special teams making some game-changing plays, and I think that’s what happened tonight. Seeing those guys do all the work that they do, they do a great job and this is exactly what Coach Kill wanted before this game.”