MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — For Minnesota, trying to climb out of the bottom of the Big Ten, minor improvements can make a major difference.
Special teams are a good place to start.
Marcus Jones returned the second half kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown and the Gophers pulled away for a 51-23 victory over UNLV on Thursday, the 23rd loss in a row on the road for the Rebels.
"That's how you can turn around football programs," coach Jerry Kill said, adding: "To win games you've got to be able to make plays in the kicking game."
Minnesota turned a tight game into a romp without much contribution by the offense. Ra'Shede Hageman blocked a field goal and batted the ball so Martez Shabazz could pick it up and race for a 78-yard touchdown in the third quarter, and Briean Boddy-Calhoun scored on an 89-yard interception return in the fourth.
"The defense and the special teams, they saved us tonight," said Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson. "That's what Coach Kill preaches all the time: special teams make some game-changing plays."
UNLV's Tim Cornett rushed 20 times for 80 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown run to cap a commanding opening drive for the Rebels. Shaquille Murray-Lawrence gained 108 yards on four carries for UNLV, which last won away from Las Vegas on Oct. 24, 2009, at New Mexico. The Rebels held a 419-320 edge in total yards.
"Frankly, there are very few teams in college football that can make the big errors like we did today and win the game," coach Bobby Hauck said.
Nelson ran 12 times for 83 yards and two touchdowns, including a 48-yard sprint in the second quarter. His best throw of the night was to freshman tight end Maxx Williams at the edge of the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown pass with 18 seconds left in the first half. That score gave the Gophers the lead for good.
Nelson, though, was off the mark a lot. He went 10 for 22 for 99 yards and an interception and also fumbled on second-and-goal at the 1-yard line late in the second quarter. He recovered, but after an overthrow on third down the Gophers settled for a field goal. Backup Mitch Leidner relieved him late and ran for a score of his own.
Running back Donnell Kirkwood, who limped off with an injury to his right ankle, totaled only 30 yards on 11 carries for the Gophers.
For most of the night, the Rebels had the better sophomore quarterback. Nick Sherry, who finished 35 for 50 for 226 yards, threw across his body on fourth down for a 34-yard touchdown pass to Devante Davis that put UNLV ahead 13-10 with 5:04 left in the first half. He added a short scoring toss in the closing minutes.
But Sherry, who was picked off three times by the Gophers last year, threw two interceptions in the fourth, the first of which went right to Boddy-Calhoun, one of two new starting cornerbacks for Minnesota.
"We showed some goods and some bads," Sherry said.
Taking the Gophers to triple overtime in a 30-27 loss last season in the opener in Las Vegas certainly gave the Rebels some confidence, even though they won only two games in 2012, their third year under Hauck. Their strong start here didn't last, though, after a kickoff-time temperature of 92 degrees that felt more like Nevada than Minnesota in late August. Six misting fans on each sideline helped keep the players cool, and a strong student-section showing yielded a crowd of 44,208.
The last time the Gophers scored this many points was 63 in 2006 for a win over Indiana at the Metrodome.
Roland Johnson also blocked an extra point for Minnesota on a tough night for UNLV kicker Nolan Kohorst, who also missed a 49-yard field goal. Kohorst made a 32-yarder after Sherry's throw to the near corner of the end zone went in and out of the hands of Jerry Rice Jr., the son of the Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver.
"We went into the locker room at halftime feeling pretty good about ourselves and kicking ourselves for not being up," Hauck said.
Hauck didn't have the Rebels practice kickoff coverage during spring practice and training camp in order to stay healthy, and they have hardly any starters on special teams units. So that decision looked a little strange when Jones fielded the kick to start the second half and weaved his way through the Rebels to the end zone.
"That was a big boost, just the fact that Marcus kind of caught everybody off guard," Hageman said. "He's been doing that in practice all the time so I wasn't surprised. You know he has that finishing speed."
So did Shabazz, who saw the blocked field goal sequence develop "like a dream" after Hageman got his big hand on the ball and swatted it toward him.
"I told him, 'Thank you,'" Shabazz said, smiling.
The rest of the Gophers were just as grateful for all the special teams contributions.