By athletic communications assistant Michael Molde
After battling to a 16-13 halftime lead against UNLV by scoring a touchdown late in the first half, Minnesota was looking for someone or something to give it a spark in the second half.
That spark came from a guy with two surgically-repaired anterior cruciate ligaments, junior defensive back Marcus Jones. The speedy Jones, whose previous two seasons were ended by ACL tears, took the second half kickoff at Minnesota's 2-yard line and raced down the UNLV sideline for a 98-yard return for a touchdown.
"It couldn't happen to a better person, with what Marcus Jones has been through," head coach Jerry Kill said. "Two ACL injuries, and his return was well-executed. I think maybe one guy got his hand on him."
Jones' score was the Gophers' first kickoff return for a TD since Duane Bennett's 96-yard return versus Wisconsin on Nov. 12, 2011, and it stretched Minnesota's advantage to 23-13 just 12 seconds after the half.
Late in the game, Jones showed his speed again, as he made a touchdown-saving tackle on a 64-yard run by UNLV's Shaquille Murray-Lawrence. Jones gained probably 5 yards on Murray-Lawrence, who had broken through the middle and looked like he'd outrun the defense for a long scoring run. But Jones pulled him down at the Minnesota 11-yard line.
"He got out there (on defense) and made a heck of a play right away," Kill said. "They eventually scored, but he ran a guy down and showed that he could really run. It couldn't have happened to a better kid."
Midway through the third quarter, special teams played a role in another touchdown, as senior nose tackle Ra'Shede Hageman reached up to block a 37-yard field goal attempt by UNLV kicker Nolan Kohorst. Senior defensive back Martez Shabazz gathered in the ball at the UNLV 49 and returned it 51 yards for a score, giving the Gophers a 30-13 lead.
Boddy-Calhoun made his first career interception.
"I think it (the blocked FG) was a big boost for us," Hageman said. "(Martez) Shabazz caught everybody off guard on the other team. He's been making those kind of plays all through practice, so I wasn't surprised by his play. I was able to get the block and then I pushed the ball forward and Shabazz picked it up. It was definitely a game-changer."
Then, early in the fourth stanza and with UNLV driving deep into Minnesota territory, junior cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun stepped in front of a Nick Sherry pass attempt and returned it 89 yards for the third touchdown from the Gophers' defense and special teams.
Boddy-Calhoun's score made it 37-16, and the Gophers coasted to a decisive 51-23 win before a crowd of 44,217 at TCF Bank Stadium. In all, Minnesota's defense broke up nine pass attempts, blocked two other passes and came up with two interceptions.
Jones accounted for 149 return yards in the game, with 134 yards on kickoff returns and one punt return for 15 yards. The returns shaped the course of the second-half surge, as Minnesota outscored the Rebels, 35-10, after the intermission.