LAS VEGAS — Give them enough time, and the Gophers can fix their problems. On Thursday, it took three overtimes to get things ironed out.
MarQueis Gray overthrew John Rabe when he was wide open; Derrick Wells committed a horse-collar penalty to keep a UNLV drive alive; and Jordan Wettstein pushed a 32-yard field goal wide left, the first miss of his career.
But forget all that, because they fixed the problems when it mattered most. Gray hit Rabe with touchdown passes on back-to-back plays; Wells intercepted a pass in the end zone; and Wettstein nailed the winning kick from the exact spot as his miss, all of those heroics coming in overtime.
The result was a 30-27 victory over UNLV, the first road win in Jerry Kill's short career as Gophers coach, and a great lesson in his football team's ability to correct mistakes.
"I told the kids, that's fighting back," Kill said after he won a season opener for the first time since 2007, when he was coaching Southern Illinois. "Didn't go your way, fought back, and good things happen."
Good things did, but only after lots of bad things.
The Gophers dominated the game statistically, gaining 478 yards of offense to 275 for the Rebels while holding UNLV to only 48 yards on its first six possessions of the second half. Even the Gophers' fans had a great night, their gold shirts practically outnumbering Rebels fans among the tiny 16,031-person "crowd" at Sam Boyd Stadium.
But all the positives were overwhelmed by the Gophers' own errors for much of the night. Gray was off-target on most of his throws down the field; the Gophers committed 11 penalties for 86 yards; and their special teams had a horrible night. The Gophers punted away six possessions but averaged only 33 yards per punt; watched senior returner Troy Stoudermire fumble away a punt that helped lead to a Rebels go-ahead touchdown; and misfired on Wettstein's short field-goal try shortly before halftime.
"I'm happy with the win, but I know we've got to get better with execution," Kill said. "There were a lot of young kids that played, but there's no excuse for that. I think we're better than that, and I think we will improve. No question about that."
Despite all the mistakes, the Gophers were kept in the game by an eight-in-the-box defensive front that kept UNLV redshirt freshman quarterback Nick Sherry from getting comfortable. Sherry completed 15 of 32 passes in regulation for only 110 yards and two interceptions.
Gray wasn't much better, though, continually overthrowing his receivers. The senior quarterback was 15-for-28 for 234 yards in regulation, with one interception. His longest completion of the night, a 40-yarder to A.J. Barker, was a short pass that Barker turned into a long gain by breaking a tackle.
"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 also rushed for 68 yards on 17 carries. "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."
Thursday's game had been remarkably lackluster before the fourth quarter, living up to the matchup between teams that combined for five victories last season. The Gophers punted three times in the first half, and three more in the second, and scored only once, a 16-yard touchdown run by tailback James Gillum midway through the second quarter.
They allowed a field goal by UNLV kicker Nolan Kohorst in the first quarter, a drive set up by Gray's interception, then handed the Rebels a third-quarter touchdown on Stoudermire's muffed punt, giving UNLV the ball on the Gophers 33-yard line. The sixth-year senior cornerback compounded the mistake by committing a pass interference penalty on the next play, and UNLV scored on a 1-yard run by junior tailback Tim Cornett -- who collected 127 rushing yards on 25 carries -- four plays later.
But Wettstein converted a pair of scoring drives in the fourth quarter with field goals, and when Kohorst matched him with 2:46 to play to tie the score 13-13, the game headed to overtime for the third time in the Gophers' past six season-openers.
Both teams scored a touchdown on their first possession of overtime. The Rebels, going first, sent Cornett around around the left corner, and after breaking a tackle, he raced past the Gophers defense from 18 yards out, just managing to get the ball inside the pylon as he reached the end zone.
The Gophers answered with a 10-yard pass across the middle from Gray to Rabe. The tight end caught his second touchdown pass -- matching his career total -- on the very next play, breaking wide open for a 25-yard scoring strike from Gray that looked like it might hold up for the victory.
"When I turned my head around, no one was around me, I'm just [thinking], 'catch the ball, catch the ball,' " Rabe said. "It was perfect."
The Rebels got to the Gophers 6-yard line on their turn, and on fourth down, Sherry scrambled out of a near-sack and found sophomore receiver Devante Davis open in the left corner for the tying score.
That sent the game to a third, and decisive, overtime. With the ball on the Gophers 11, Sherry looked for Davis across the middle, and Wells, a sophomore safety, anticipated the play.
"We were in Cover-3, I just broke back on the ball and he threw it. I don't think he saw me," Wells said. And what's he thinking then? "Pick six," Wells said with a laugh.
He was pulled down at midfield, but the Gophers needed only a field goal to win. They ran three plays to advance to the 16, then sent Wettstein in for the winner. He kicked it, then raced down the field ahead of a pack of teammates intent on tackling him in celebration.
"Any time you get the opportunity to win a game, you feel good about it," Kill said of his 1-0 Gophers. "Doesn't matter how it gets done."