After studying the Gophers’ 51-23 victory over UNLV on Thursday, Jerry Kill said that at least on special teams, he believed his team played as well as it had in any game since his arrival in the Twin Cities.
“Special teams — kickoff returns, punt returns, things of that nature, we probably played as well as we played in the last two years,” said the Gophers coach.
The special teams highlights included Marcus Jones’ 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and Martez Shabazz returning a field goal blocked by Ra’Shede Hageman 51 yards for another score.
UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said at one time in Thursday’s game he looked up at the scoreboard and the Rebels had 420 yards and the Gophers 234. He told the Las Vegas Review-Journal that if it wasn’t for the Gophers’ two special teams touchdowns, “I think we win.”
As for the offense and defense, Kill said: “Defensively, we did some good things, but we gave up four or five big plays. If we don’t give those up we really feel good, but you can’t do that.
“Offensively, we feel that we can play better up front than we did. But it’s early, and you have to have film to teach from.”
The team held a practice Saturday, and Kill believed some of the errors players made in the victory were corrected.
“Positive things are we didn’t have many penalties, we had one turnover, there’s a lot of good things that came out of the game,” Kill said. “Athletically we ran very well. We have to keep improving. We had a lot of players that have never played or started in a [college] football game.”
As to Kill’s evaluation of quarterback Philip Nelson, he said: “Philip is going to continue to go through the growth process, and he did a lot of good things of reading the option and running option football and took advantage of what the defense gave him. He’ll continue to progress.”
Kill said the insertion of players such as wide receivers Donovahn Jones and Drew Wolitarsky will help the passing game.
“We had a pretty competitive practice at the receiving corps on Saturday,” he said. “The good news for us is most of our guys have three or four years left that are playing. I could see five or six or seven freshmen playing as we go through it. The talent base, I think our depth is improved.”
Kill pointed to the fact that Northern Illinois — his former team, coming off an Orange Bowl appearance — won at Iowa on Saturday and that it did so with its speed.
“We have to continue to get faster to compete at the level that we’re going to have to compete in,” he said.
On the injury front, Kill said he didn’t believe Berkley Edwards would be ready for Saturday’s game at New Mexico State, and that fellow running back Donnell Kirkwood will be questionable. Both players have injured ankles.
“The positive thing is he was walking around and not in a boot, but he’s pretty tender,” Kill said of Kirkwood.
Kill said he was happy with running backs David Cobb and Rodrick Williams, who did well when Kirkwood left.
It was the first victory in a home opener for the Gophers since 2008, and for that reason alone, nobody should complain about their performance.
Faith in Ponder
Sports Illustrated recently ran its NFL predictions and has the Vikings as the eighth-best team in the NFC. In the magazine, General Manager Rick Spielman was quoted talking about quarterback Christian Ponder’s career.
“The same things happened to Eli Manning early on in New York. He had a lot of ups and downs in his second and third years, but that stopped when he won the Super Bowl in Year 4,” Spielman told SI. “You have to look at the whole picture, and we feel very confident that [Ponder] is progressing the way he should be.”
Coach Leslie Frazier talked about how Ponder now has a signature game to look back on after he finished last season throwing for 234 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in the Vikings’ playoff-clinching victory over the Packers in the season finale.
“That win should be a steppingstone,” Frazier said. “It’s something he can look back on and say, ‘I know I can do this. I proved it.’ I think we’ll say that was the turning point in his career.”
Morneau joins the race
Now that Justin Morneau has joined the Pirates, the longtime Twins star said he is excited for the chance to play in a playoff atmosphere again.
“A first-place team, you’re always excited to become a part of that,” Morneau told MLB.com. “I’ve been paying attention from the other league, and they play the game hard and play it right. Hopefully it’ll be a long run and fun run, and I’ve stepped into something that’s enjoyable.”
He went 1-for-3 with a walk in his Pittsburgh debut Sunday.
• MarQueis Gray, the former Gophers quarterback and receiver who is trying to catch on as a tight end in the NFL, was cut by the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday but claimed off waivers by the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.
• You wonder if after the Vikings play a couple of games and find they miss the tackling and other abilities of now-retired cornerback Antoine Winfield, that they won’t pursue him to return to help their defense.
• New Mexico State went into halftime of its game with No. 15 Texas trailing just 14-7, but the Longhorns scored 42 unanswered points in the second half. … The Gophers-New Mexico State game will not be televised live on local TV but will be shown on Fox Sports North on Sunday and can be viewed over the Internet live. … Local fans will recognize one name on the New Mexico State roster, former Eden Prairie defensive lineman Willie Mobley, who landed with the Aggies after leaving Arizona. He had three tackles in the loss to Texas.
• The Twins are sending seven prospects to the Arizona Fall League: pitchers A.J. Achter, Zach Jones, Trevor May and Alex Meyer; infielder Eddie Rosario; and outfielders Max Kepler and Byron Buxton, the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball. They will all play with Glendale.
• Tyus Jones, the Apple Valley standout point guard who is currently the No. 3-ranked high school basketball prospect in the country according to ESPN, took an official visit to Baylor this weekend. Also there for the visit was Jahlil Okafor, the No. 1 prospect in the country, who has long been rumored to be part of a package deal in recruiting Jones.
• The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published this statistic: In Francisco Liriano’s starts after a Pirates loss, he is 8-2 with a 1.26 ERA in 10 games. He pitched a two-hitter with eight strikeouts in a 5-0 victory over St. Louis on Friday.
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 6:40, 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. email@example.com