August 30, 2012; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Minnesota Golden Gophers running back James Gillum (21) highsteps it into the endzone against UNLV. Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE
What a fun night of finally getting to watch Gopher football. It wasn't always pretty, it wasn't an inspiring performance but it was a win and I think there are some good things we can glean from last night's game. This is going to be more a list of observations and thoughts rather than a traditional game review so here goes...
When you look at most of the numbers, this looks like a game where the Gophers played great. If I were to tell you that Gray would complete 56.7% of his passes for 269 yards, 2 touchdowns and one interception; I think we'd all be pretty pleased with those numbers. Donnell Kirkwood ran the ball great leading a Gopher rushing attack that gained 226 yards. The defense held UNLV to 13 points and 222 yards in regulation while generating three total turnovers. In total we outgained our opponent 478 to 275. The defensive line did a nice job getting pressure on the QB getting 2 sacks and a number of hits on the passer. On paper we sort of dominated.
But the Gophers continually got in their own way. Gray's numbers look good on paper but he had two beautiful opportunities to hit wide open receivers for easy touchdowns, one to Rabe on the first possession and the one to McDonald when the DB fell down. Complete one of those and we don't play OT, complete them both and I would have gone to bed an hour earlier. Troy Stoudermire bobbles a punt and follows that up with a PI penalty that gives UNLV their lone regulation touchdown. Add to those plays 11 penalties, Gray's interception, TERRIBLE punting, lack of contain defensively and you created an environment for UNLV to stick around and nearly win that game.
Here is where I make some excuses for our favorite club. They were playing on the road to open the season. They were playing in a very hot environment. And they were playing a game at what equates to 10:00 pm till nearly 2:00 AM on their internal clocks. Not ideal conditions and eventually they did enough to overcome. Even with all of that I have two prevailing thoughts. There were some real positives and I think the mistakes are correctable.
- Receivers were consistently getting open. They were creating separation, running good routes and they made some nice plays. AJ Barker was more of a "difference maker" than Brandon Green, Devin Crawford-Tufts was solid and I really (REALLY) like our group of freshmen receivers.
- Donnell Kirkwood did not look like Donnell Kirkwood. He looks much faster than he did a year ago and I thought he looked great. There was one play where he beat a corner around the corner showing speed I didn't think he had.
- The defensive line was consistently getting good pressure on the UNLV quarterback. This may have been at the expense of keeping contain in the run game but the QB was sacked twice and hit a number of times but defensive linemen, not always blitzing linebackers.
- The defensive backs played well too, I thought. They weren't perfect, but considering our safeties are brand new and our back-up corners are brand new I thought we did well. Three picks nearly equaled our entire 2011 total (4)! No big plays were allowed. An encouraging night for the secondary.
Rittenberg's review of the game echoed some of my same thoughts on the defense. Overall the defense forced five three-and-outs and had two more where they intercepted the third down pass (not sure if that is technically seven three-and-outs or not).
Before getting to Gray's odd night, some props for Minnesota's defense. The unit rescued the Gophers multiple times and showed tangible improvement. First, a line that has been largely ineffective for the past three seasons turned up the heat, as Ra'Shede Hageman, D.L. Wilhite, Ben Perry and others got involved. The secondary stepped up late, no one more so than sophomore safety Derrick Wells, who recorded two interceptions, including one in the end zone in the third overtime.
Gray's night was kind of bizarre in that his stat line looks rather good and he played well in the OT (2/2, 35 yards and 2 TDs). But his misses nearly cost us the game and at times his passing was brutally ugly. The good news is that I think this is correctable, or at the very least they are mistakes that I don't expect to consistently see all year. Will he miss receivers? Yes, he isn't perfect. And as I have defended for years it is a hard position to play. Even the absolute best miss open receivers. But I doubt you will see him miss Andre McDonald, when the closes defensive back is sitting on the ground 7 yards behind him, very often. I think you will see him hit John Rabe when the linebacker is trailing by 5 yards more often than not. For the most part (the interception the notable exception) Gray's problems were not related to decision making, they were just execution. Those are easier to correct.
The Gophers won, let us not forget that important fact. A year ago they played great against USC but lost before going on to play terrible in losses to New Mexico State and North Dakota State. A win is a win, getting back home and playing at a decent hour will make a difference for this team. I see no reason (yet) to be alarmed by the sloppiness of the win, it was a win.
- Offensive MVP - Donnell Kirkwood. I was really impressed, it wasn't exactly the Nebraska defense but he looked much quicker/faster than last year and he looked to me like a feature back.
- Defensive MVP - Derek Wells. Two picks and led the team with eight tackles.
- It was interesting to me how much they were rotating linebackers and defensive linemen. I know there was a plan to do this in an effort to keep guys fresh in the heat so it will be interesting to see how much that changes next week. But all of the #2 guys played quite a bit and in some cases they looked good.
- One of those backups who played well was Brenda Beal.
- Offfensive line blocked well, I thought but they made a few crucial penalties. 4th quarter, down three, 3rd and 2 and we have a false start? Unacceptable.
- A ton of true freshmen were contributors last night. Scott Ekpe, KJ Maye, Jamel Harbison, Andre McDonald and Eric Murray all contributed and will not be redshirting.