The Gophers football team came up with a number of big scoring plays Thursday night in its 51-23 victory over UNLV, and while quarterback Philip Nelson got the offense going with a 48-yard touchdown run, the bulk of the scoring was done by players who were not big-name guys.
Maxx Williams caught an important touchdown with just 18 seconds left in the half to give the Gophers a 16-13 lead, Williams’ first college reception after being redshirted last season. The tight end is a Waconia native, and his father, Brian, played offensive line for the Gophers before playing 10 seasons with the New York Giants, while his mother, Rochele, was a volleyball standout with the Gophers as well.
Then there was Marcus Jones, the junior who was had twice had season-ending knee injuries. Both his knees have been operated on by Dr. Pat Smith, who has been the Gophers orthopedic doctor through seven coaches and 29 years. Jones continued the scoring with a 98-yard kickoff return to open the third quarter. Jones has always been considered a stellar athlete and during his 2011 freshman season he returned a kickoff 92 yards for a touchdown, but last season he had only 147 all-purpose yards in 11 games.
Then Martez Shabazz picked up a Ra’Shede Hageman blocked field-goal attempt and returned it 52 yards, putting the Gophers up 30-13. Shabazz, a senior, is a junior college transfer who played in nine games last season for the Gophers, recording six tackles. He also missed four games in 2012 after dislocating a toe. Coach Jerry Kill said the pickup and return by Shabazz was one of the greatest plays he has seen.
Briean Boddy-Calhoun, another junior college transfer, put the game out of reach with an 89-yard interception return at the start of the fourth quarter to put the Gophers up 37-16. Boddy-Calhoun played in 13 games last season for the Gophers as a sophomore, but he made only nine tackles and hadn’t recorded an interception.
No doubt the Gophers and Kill hope that lesser-known players continue to have a big impact throughout the year.
• Even though Justin Morneau has been traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates there’s a chance that the Twins will make every effort after the season to re-sign him. Morneau personally wanted to stay in Minnesota and there’s a chance that he will take less money to do so. Morneau had a great August, hitting nine homers and 21 RBI in 29 games.
• If Ron Gardenhire, who will be back in 2014 for his 13th season as Twins manager, and GM Terry Ryan decide that Joe Mauer needs to become a regular first baseman, it will be a decision against Mauer’s wishes. In a recent conversation with Mauer, he made it very clear to me that he wants to be a full-time catcher and I doubt that the recent concussion problem will change his mind.
• The Twins weren’t going to move Josh Willingham when Baltimore claimed the outfielder on waivers unless they got more than a prospect.
• The way Vikings special teams coach Mike Priefer saw it, former Gophers defensive back Marcus Sherels didn’t have to return a kickoff 109 yards for a touchdown and intercept a pass against Tennessee on Thursday night to keep his job. In a conversation I had with Priefer a week ago, he indicated that Sherels had been an outstanding returner and would have Priefer’s vote to be among the 53 players making the final roster.
• No doubt the big turnout of students at the Gophers-UNLV game — even though many tickets were free, watching a football game in 95-degree heat is no bargain — was the result of coach Jerry Kill encouraging them to attend in a speech he gave to the incoming freshmen.
• San Jose State, the Gophers’ opponent on Sept. 21, opened by beating Sacramento State 24-0, with All-America candidate David Fales completing 16 of 32 passes for 224 yards and two touchdowns.