For a team that scored 51 points, the Gophers sure opened questions about their offense Thursday.
After watching his players use two special teams touchdowns and a defensive touchdown to pull away from UNLV, 51-23, coach Jerry Kill acknowledged Friday that the Gophers still have a long way to go.
But Kill also didn’t want offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover beating himself up after UNLV outgained the Gophers by nearly 100 yards, 419-320. The offense is trying to show progress after being held to 17 or fewer points in eight games last season.
“Coach Limegrover’s been in here today, [saying] ‘Boy, Coach,’ ” Kill said, from his office. “I said, ‘Hey, relax man. It’s the first ballgame.’ ”
The next one comes Sept. 7 at New Mexico State, and even with two extra days to prepare, the Gophers could be without two running backs.
Donnell Kirkwood, who led the team with 926 rushing yards last year, appeared to sprain his right ankle in the third quarter, when UNLV linebacker Tau Lotulelei rolled onto his leg. Kill said he didn’t have an update available, but it sounds like Kirkwood will be out until at least Week 3 against Western Illinois.
Kill had hoped freshman running back Berkley Edwards would return from his sprained ankle injury next week, but on Friday, the coach didn’t sound as optimistic. That means David Cobb (six carries, 69 yards against UNLV) and Rodrick Williams Jr. (four carries, 13 yards) could have to shoulder the load.
The Gophers have waited two years for Cobb to start reaching the potential he showed in rushing for nearly 3,000 yards at Ellison (Texas) High School. He broke off a 60-yard run in the fourth quarter against UNLV, using a nifty cut behind the line of scrimmage and a fast burst along the sideline.
“I don’t want Donnell to get hurt, but it’s good that David got some time and did well,” Kill said.
The Gophers are built to emphasize the running game, so these injuries could force them to rely on other strengths against a New Mexico State team that went 1-11 last season.
Quarterback Philip Nelson had some good moments and some bad moments against UNLV. He completed 10-of-22 passes for 99 yards and a touchdown and rushed 12 times for 83 yards and two touchdowns.
Nelson threw one interception, but that came early on a deep pass that Kill thought Derrick Engel should have caught.
“He’s got to go get that ball; that’s part of being a receiver,” Kill said.
Nelson targeted Engel several times, but the two didn’t connect for a completion. KJ Maye led the team with three catches for 30 yards.
Kill made it clear he’ll be counting on freshmen receivers Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky and Eric Carter because it’s all hands on deck at that position.
It sounds like Jones’ conversion from quarterback is speeding up fast.
“He’s going to get pushed more this week; there’s no question about that,” Kill said. “Right now, we need a receiver that’s physical and can go get a football. Not that we don’t have that. Derrick [Engel’s] very capable, he’s proven that. Isaac Fruechte [has, too]. We just need more.”
Kill also sounds determined to get tight end/H-back Maxx Williams more involved in the offense. A redshirt freshman, Williams made his first career reception count with a lunging grab of Nelson’s 10-yard touchdown pass late in the first half.
“We’re getting better, but … offensively, we’ve got to make sure we get the right people on the field,” Kill said. “We learned a lot about how well Maxx is going to play under the gun.”
The Gophers liked what they saw from another redshirt freshman, too. Backup quarterback Mitch Leidner took his first college snaps toward the end of the game and rushed three times for 25 yards and a touchdown.
Kill called that “probably the most important part of the game,” as the team is determined to get Leidner experience.
“He looked pretty relaxed to me,” Kill said. “He ran the option, and boom-boom-boom, score. So that was encouraging.”
The Gophers posted their highest score in their four-plus years at TCF Bank Stadium, so there were bound to be some encouraging signs.