MINNEAPOLIS – Nick Sherry looked sharp most of the night executing UNLV’s hurry-up spread offense, completing 35-of-50 passes for 226 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
Tim Cornett was, well, Tim Cornett, rushing for 80 yards on 20 carries, including a 26-yard touchdown. Newcomer Shaquille Murray-Lawrence made an impressive debut with a game-high 108-yards on four carries.
And the Rebel defense held Minnesota to 316 yards and 17 first downs, not bad against a Big Ten team.
But some not-so-special plays by UNLV’s special teams were the big difference in a 51-23 loss here on Thursday night at TCF Bank Stadium.
On a day when local grade school was cancelled here because of humid mid-90 degree temperatures – really – it was another special teams melt down that the difference in UNLV’s 23rd consecutive road loss.
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The Rebels, despite all-conference kicking prospect Nolan Kohorst having a PAT blocked and missing a 49-yard field goal, trailed just 16-13 at halftime and dictated play most of the half with a precise, short and quick passes.
“We went into halftime feeling pretty good about ourselves and kicking ourselves for not being up,” UNLV coach Bobby Hauck said.
But Marcus Jones returned the second half kickoff 98-yards to increase Minnesota’s lead to 23-13. A little over seven minutes later, it was 30-13 after Gopher defensive lineman Ra’Shede Hageman, considered a potential first round NFL pick, knifed through the middle of the line to block a Kohorst 37-yard field goal try. Martez Shabazz then scooped up the bouncing ball at midfield and returned it 51-yards for a touchdown.
In the span of 7:24, UNLV’s special teams gave up 14 points. Hard to win that way.
Minnesota made it 37-16 early in the fourth quarter when corner Bobby Buddy-Calhoun stepped in the flat to pick off Sherry and ran 83-yards for another touchdown.
“You can’t give up three touchdowns like that,” Hauck said. “That obviously was the story of the game.”
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill echoed Hauck’s statement.
“They don’t get much bigger than that,” he said referring to Jones’ game-changing return to begin the second half. “We talk about how important our coverage teams are and our return teams are. It couldn’t happen to a better person than what Marcus Jones has been through. Two ACL injuries and it was well executed. I think maybe one guy got his hand on him.”
A few minutes later the 6-foot-6, 311-pound Hageman helped put another seven points on the board for Minnesota when he blocked Kohorst’s field goal try.
“I was focusing on the ball as it was snapped and the first thing in my mind was to come at it full speed,” Hageman, who also had five tackles and a pass breakup, said. “I got by the guard and as soon as I was back there I jumped and put my hands up, then I felt the ball touch my hands.”
Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson, who rushed for a team-high 83 yards on 12 carries and scored two touchdowns, increased the Gopher lead to 44-16 with a 5-yard touchdown run midway through the fourth quarter.
Sherry hit Taylor Barnhill with a one-yard touchdown pass with 4:12 left to finish the scoring for the Rebels. The Gophers added a meaningless four-yard touchdown run by third string QB Mitch Leidner with 42 seconds left to pass the 50-point barrier. The 51 points marked the most the team had scored in a game in the short history of TCF Bank Stadium.
Before the special teams gaffes, it appeared UNLV had a legitimate shot of boarding the plane home following a win for the first time since Oct. 24, 2009, at New Mexico.
The Rebels, 14-point underdogs, took a 6-0 lead on a 26-yard touchdown run by Cornett to cap a 75-yard, 13-play drive on the first series of the game. But the normally reliable Kohorst had his PAT blocked, only his third extra point miss in 88 career attempts.
Minnesota, taking advantage of a 21-yard punt by Logan Yunker, closed to within 6-3 on a 25-yard field goal by Chris Hawthorne.
After Korhorst missed a 49-yard field goal, the Golden Gophers took a 10-6 lead early in the second quarter on a 48-yard run around right end by Nelson.
In past years, the Rebels might have folded. Instead UNLV answered with a 66-yard, 11-play touchdown drive to go back in front, 13-10. The Rebels twice converted on fourth down, including on 4th-and-6 at the Gopher 34 when a scrambling Sherry connected with Devante Davis for a touchdown.
But Minnesota regained the lead, 16-13, with 18 seconds to go before halftime when Nelson found freshman tight end Maxx Williams, who made a nice diving catch in the right corner of the end zone.
“We knew we had to score at the end of the half,” Nelson said. “In practice we worked a lot on the two-minute drill and I think tonight we executed it very well. I think we did a really great job finishing off the drive the way we wanted to.”
Sherry was 18-of-26 for 131 yards and a touchdown in the first half while Cornett had a team-best 46 yards on 10 carries. Nelson led Minnesota with 65 yards on seven carries and a touchdown and also completed 7-of-14 passes for 66 yards and another TD.
UNLV finished with a 419-320 edge in total yards and a 21-17 advantage in first downs. Those stats, however, became somewhat meaningless thanks to the Rebels special teams breakdowns.
“I think we’re going to have a good football team,” Hauck said. “I’m fired up about our guys. I really liked we did on defense tonight. … Aside from that last drive I thought we played really well on defense. We haven’t done that. … A lot of things to build on. But the big errors, you just can’t have that.”
UNLV returns to action on Sept. 7 when it hosts Arizona at Sam Boyd Stadium at 7:30 p.m.