LAS VEGAS - It might have been their first trip to Vegas, but the Gophers recognized that game Thursday night: Lightly regarded opponent, confidence over the prospect of a victory, and then a too-late realization that their Big Ten label makes them a target, not a tyrant.
Hello, New Mexico State. Greetings, North Dakota State.
But one rather enormous element changed in the Gophers football team's 2012 debut: the ending.
"We found a way to win," senior linebacker Keanon Cooper said. "For the past couple of years, we always found a way to lose."
It took three overtimes and perhaps far more opportunities than it should have, but the Gophers didn't let mistakes doom them to another inexplicable loss. In the third OT, Derrick Wells intercepted a pass in the end zone, Jordan Wettstein followed with a 32-yard field goal, and Minnesota collected the souvenir it came for, a 30-27 victory over gritty UNLV at Sam Boyd Stadium.
"Any time you get the opportunity to win a game, you feel good about it," said Gophers coach Jerry Kill, who had not won a season opener since 2007. "Doesn't matter how it gets done."
Certainly not at the time, though how it got done will be the subject of extensive film study in the days ahead. The breakdown will reveal a quarterback who came out too amped up to control his passes; a shaky punting game that put the Gophers at a severe field-position deficit until the fourth quarter; and a teamwide knack for compounding mistakes with untimely penalties.
And ultimately, none of it mattered.
"It was certainly a struggle, but we're going to get better. I can promise you that," Kill said. "Fortunately, we won. And it certainly will create a better atmosphere [for] learning than not winning."
Not winning was a distinct possibility, despite a 200-yard advantage in total offense. Donnell Kirkwood and James Gillum gave the Gophers an effective running game, but MarQueis Gray couldn't support it with a consistent passing attack. The fifth-year senior quarterback overthrew several receivers, often looking as much like a redshirt freshman as his overwhelmed UNLV counterpart, Nick Sherry.
"I was just too anxious. We couldn't get that rhythm. Every time we got a rhythm going, we had a penalty," said Gray, who still managed to pass for 269 yards, nearly half of them to junior A.J. Barker. "I was just getting too anxious with the ball. That's something I have to pick up week in and week out, starting this week with New Hampshire preparations."
The Gophers will want to replicate the effectiveness they suddenly demonstrated in overtime, not during the first four lackluster quarters. Gray, who badly missed a sure-to-score John Rabe on the game's first drive, made up for it by delivering touchdown scores to the senior tight end on back-to-back plays, one to end the first overtime and the other to begin the second.
The first was a find-him-in-traffic pass across the middle from 10 yards out, and the second was a blown coverage that left Rabe all alone for an easy dump-off and a 25-yard score. Rabe, who doubled his career scoring total in roughly five minutes, said the Gophers never doubted that Gray would emerge a hero.
"He gives you confidence, no matter what. 'Leader' is the word for MarQueis," Rabe said. "He was poised the whole game. We all had confidence in him."
And they have confidence in Wettstein, despite the first missed field goal of his career, a 32-yarder shortly before halftime. Given another shot from the exact same distance in the third overtime, following Wells' touchdown-saving interception, the senior kicker shrugged off the pressure and nailed the game-winner.
"He misses a field goal, comes back, doesn't feel sorry for himself -- that's not easy to do," Kill said.
Neither is holding an offense without a scoring drive of longer than 33 yards, which the Gophers managed to do until UNLV's final possession of regulation. On the Rebels' first 10 drives that began in their territory (or in one case, at the Gophers 47), Minnesota gave up a total of 116 yards.
"The offense struggled a little bit, but the defense did our job until the offense got rolling," Cooper said.
That never really happened until OT, but no matter. The 11 penalties for 86 yards, the fumbled punt by Troy Stoudermire, the field position surrendered because the punters averaged 35.1 yards on seven kicks -- those are details of a win, not reasons for a loss.
"In some ways, maybe our kids needed this as much as anything -- to find a way to win when it doesn't look very good. Because since I've been here, we didn't have that fight-back when things didn't go our way," Kill said. But Thursday, "we hung in there and got it done."