Gophers survive ugly triple-OT thriller

By Charlie Armitz

Minnesota Daily, U. Minnesota via UWIRE

Gophers survive ugly triple-OT thriller

LAS VEGAS — There’s winning pretty, and there’s winning ugly.

Minnesota accomplished the latter Thursday, defeating Nevada-Las Vegas 30-27 in triple overtime at Sam Boyd Stadium. And yes, it was an accomplishment considering the Gophers hadn’t won on the road in two years and finished last season 3-9.

“Any time you get the opportunity to win a game, you feel good about it, no matter how it gets done,” said second-year head coach Jerry Kill.

It didn’t feel entirely like a road game, as Gophers fans filled nearly half the crowd of 16,013. For Kill, whose Gophers were 0-6 on the road last season, it also didn’t end like one.

Kill opened his tenure at Minnesota last year with an encouraging two-point loss to a ranked opponent. This year, it struggled to defeat a team that went 2-10 last season. It struggled to score against a UNLV defense that allowed more than 40 points per game in 2011. It failed to play with discipline and it failed to seize opportunities.

No matter.

“An ugly win is better than a pretty loss,” said senior linebacker Keanon Cooper. “Last year, we played against USC — that was a pretty loss.”

Nothing about this game was pretty — not even the Gophers’ offensive explosion in overtime. In the first extra session, Gray scrambled away from pressure and drew a late-hit penalty, which set up a 10-yard scoring strike to tight end John Rabe. In the second, blown coverage enabled Gray to find Rabe again, wide-open, for a 25-yard touchdown.

In the third overtime, with the score tied at 27-27, UNLV quarterback Nick Sherry threw his third interception and his second to safety Derrick Wells. That opened the door for Gophers kicker Jordan Wettstein to make the game-winning 32-yard field goal.

Wettstein had missed and made from 32 yards earlier in the game, but he said his game-winner was just like any other kick.

“Coach Kill puts us in that situation probably every week,” Wettstein said. “From the snap, the hold, the kick, the guys on the [offensive] line, it was like second-nature to everybody.”

Other results of the team’s month-long preseason camp were less obvious. Minnesota committed 11 penalties, fumbled one punt return and nearly a second, shanked two punts and was 3-for-15 on third-down conversions.

For Gray, the consensus star on a Gophers team with bowl-game expectations for 2012, it was an awful showing. The senior overthrew wide-open receivers on at least six times, three of which came on would-be touchdown catches.

Gray completed 17 of 30 passes for 269 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He also rushed for 85 of Minnesota’s 226 yards.

“I didn’t come out like I wanted to the first half,” Gray said. “Everyone else played good, but I’ve just got to get better, week in and week out, and that’s what I plan on doing.”

While Gray struggled, the rest of his offense picked up the slack with consistent play. Junior wideout A.J. Barker caught three passes for 101 yards, and nine receivers caught at least one pass. Tailbacks Donnell Kirkwood and James Gillum combined for 27 carries and 132 yards, with Gillum scoring the Gophers’ only touchdown in regulation.

Improvement has been an early theme for Minnesota’s young squad, and at times Thursday, it showed. The Gophers’ defense dominated the Rebels when it wasn’t making mistakes, tallying two sacks and three interceptions. On offense, the running game was effective all night long, and the passing game lacked little besides Gray’s inaccuracy.

The team has grown stronger and fitter in the offseason too, which was evident by their improved play late in a game in which temperatures hovered in the high 80s.

Still, Minnesota may have gotten its biggest hurdle out of the way Thursday.

“The main thing is we found a way to win,” Cooper said, “and for the past couple years we’ve been finding a way to lose.”

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