KENT, Ohio – Minnesota didn’t let new faces get in the way of its old strategy.
The Gophers used a consistent, bruising running game to wear down an undermanned Kent State defense in a decisive 44-0 victory Thursday night at Dix Stadium.
Minnesota (1-0, 0-0 Big Ten) ran the ball 55 times and compiled 322 yards on the ground despite not having a single run over 18 yards.
Sophomore Alex Daniels highlighted the ground game by running for 155 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries. It was the first three-touchdown game for a Gophers running back since Gary Russell’s performance at Indiana on Nov. 5.
Daniels, who appeared in all 12 games at linebacker last season, was moved to the backfield after Minnesota lost Laurence Maroney to the NFL
draft and Gary Russell to academic ineligibility.
The 6-foot, 3-inch 265-pound Daniels made the most of his debut, showing determination and grit as he shed tacklers by spinning, hurdling and running over Kent State’s defenders.
“I think he had his best practice at running back tonight,” coach Glen Mason said.
E.J. Jones got the start at running back but rushed for just 8 yards on three carries before leaving the game with an ankle injury.
But as dominant as the Gophers were on the ground, it was the passing game that made the first impact on the scoreboard.
Senior quarterback Bryan Cupito led Minnesota to a six-play, 67-yard scoring drive that was capped off by a 39-yard touchdown pass to Eric Decker with 8:39 remaining in the first quarter.
“It was a good way to start the season,” Cupito said. “We got the looks that we thought we’d get and everything went pretty well.”
Cupito completed eight of 13 pass attempts for 146 yards and a touchdown.
After Kent State went three-and-out on their subsequent possession, Minnesota capped an eight-play, 54-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run by Daniels.
On Kent State’s next drive, Minnesota’s defense showed signs of big-play vulnerability. With 1:42 left in the
first quarter, Kent State quarterback Julian Edelman connected with wide receiver Najah Pruden for a 64-yard completion.
As Pruden juked through the Minnesota secondary, however, he was stripped of the ball at the goal line by linebacker Mario Reese who also recovered the fumble in the end zone for a touchback.
What looked to be a momentum swing in the Flashes’ favor was quickly lost. Minnesota went on a 17-play, 75-yard drive that led to a 22-yard Jason Giannini field goal.
It was the first of six Kent State turnovers on the evening, and the first indication the Flashes would stop themselves just as much as the Gophers defense.
“We just can’t make turnovers – that’s the big thing,” said Kent State coach Doug Martin. “We lost beating ourselves.”
Cornerback Jamal Harris intercepted Edelman twice, while safety Dominic Jones added another. Reese, Mike Sherels and Eric Clark each had fumble a recovery.
The forced turnovers quickly made it a lopsided contest as the Gophers racked up 252 yards of offense in the second half to Kent State’s 78.
Running back Amir Pinnix was a large part of that second-half outburst, racking up 100 of his 114 rushing yards after halftime.
The second half onslaught helped Minnesota to a perfect five-for-five scoring night inside the red zone.
“They were tough; they played hard every play,” Daniels said. “I just think we broke their spirits more than them wearing down.”