Special teams helps Gophers run past Rebels

Minnesota defeated UNLV 51-23 in the first home-opener in TCF Bank Stadium history.

Minnesota running back Donnell Kirkwood stiff arms UNLV player during Thursday's season opener at TCF Stadium. Gophers went on to win 51-23 against UNLV.

Minnesota running back Donnell Kirkwood stiff arms UNLV player during Thursday’s season opener at TCF Stadium. Gophers went on to win 51-23 against UNLV.

Jack Satzinger

Gophers’ junior defensive back Marcus Jones suffered two anterior cruciate ligament tears in the last two years, but his legs appeared at full strength Thursday night.

Jones started the second half of the Gophers’ season-opener against Nevada-Las Vegas with a 98-yard kick return for a touchdown — the first of his career. He squeezed through a group of UNLV defenders near the 25 yard line, then broke loose around the 35 and found the end zone practically untouched.

His return catalyzed a 35-point second half for the Gophers, who won their season opener 51-23 at TCF Bank Stadium on Thursday night.

“We had some great special team effort,” head coach Jerry Kill said. “We’re very proud of the kids and it’s a good win for them because they’ve worked hard.”

Jones played sparingly during his first two seasons with the Gophers, appearing in the first seven games of 2011 before tearing his ACL. He played the first 11 games of 2012, but tore an ACL again against Nebraska. He has switched between cornerback and wide receiver during his Gophers career.

Jones played in a limited contact jersey throughout spring practice, but appeared fully healthy Thursday. He led the team in all-purpose yards with 149.

His return was one of two Gophers special teams touchdowns Thursday. The other, a 51-yard field goal block return by junior Martez Shabazz, came later in the quarter.

Senior Ra’Shede Hageman broke through the line, deflecting a 37-yard field goal attempt. Hageman beat the kicker to the ball, dove and punched it forward to Shabazz.

“I just had the football knowledge of keeping the play moving, moving it along, and Shabazz picked it up,” Hageman said. “He definitely made a lot out of that play.”

The Gophers extended their lead to three touchdowns in the fourth quarter, when Briean Boddy-Calhoun returned an interception 89 yards for a touchdown. The junior cornerback was filling in for injured Derrick Wells and capitalized — making the first interception of his career.

Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson and freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner each added rushing touchdowns later in the fourth quarter. But the Gophers’ special teams and defensive play earlier in the half had given the offense breathing room. UNLV actually outgained the Gophers in total yardage — 419 to 320 — and ran 24 more offensive plays, but struggled to make the most of key situations.

Nelson completed 10-22 passes for 99 yards and one touchdown. He also ran for 90 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries.

The second-year quarterback threw an interception on the first drive of the game, but scored on a 48-yard touchdown run two drives later.

Late in the second quarter, he threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to freshman Maxx Williams to give the Gophers the lead going into halftime.

A few plays later, Jones returned a kick for a touchdown, and the Gophers led by double-digits the rest of the way.

Kirkwood sustains injury in second half

Junior running back Donnell Kirkwood rolled his ankle in the second half and didn’t return. Kirkwood, the Gophers’ leading rusher in 2012, ran for 34 yards before the injury. Kill said that his game plan won’t change next week at New Mexico State if Kirkwood is out.

Junior running back David Cobb took advantage of Kirkwood’s absence, breaking a 60-yard run late in the fourth quarter. He played alongside Rodrick Williams, who ran for 13 yards Thursday.

The Gophers rushed for 221 yards on 38 attempts.