Rushing Attack Powers Gophers Past SJSU

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MINNEAPOLIS, Minn. - Today's game between Minnesota and San Jose State was a battle of differing offensive styles, as the Gophers' powerful running game went head-to-head with the Spartans' potent passing attack.

At the half, Spartans senior QB David Fales, a highly-regarded NFL prospect, had thrown for 294 yards and Minnesota held a slim 20-17 lead.

But, in the end, redshirt freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner and Minnesota (4-0) had run over the visiting Mountain West Conference opponent by amassing 353 rushing yards on 67 carries during the Gophers' 43-24 victory at TCF Bank Stadium.

Go Gophers! Mitch Leidner
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Leidner rushed for 151 yards on Saturday.
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Leidner tied a Minnesota school record for a QB by running for four touchdowns, becoming the first quarterback to accomplish that feat since Curtis Wilson had four scores in a 33-9 win versus Indiana on Nov. 18, 1967. Leidner also finished with 151 net rushing yards, the seventh-best effort by a QB in the program's history.

Junior running back David Cobb added two more rushing TDs, as Minnesota dominated the time of possession by controlling the ball for more than 41 minutes.

"The thing is, we took what they gave us. We tried play-action passes, but their safeties were playing about 12 to 14 yards deep in the soft corner," Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. "So with that, it is hard to play a play-action, but we hit them a couple times. If you don't get that extra guy down there in the run then you better be able to run the ball. And then the quarterback is the extra guy that can run it."

Both Leidner and Cobb wound up with 100-yard performances, as Cobb finished with 25 carries for 125 net yards. With Leidner's rushing total, it marks the first time in program history that Minnesota has had a pair of QB's with 100-yard rushing games in a season, as sophomore Philip Nelson ran for 122 yards at New Mexico State.

"Running the action game and mixing up the power game it was a good formula, no question about that," Kill said. "I am proud of the kids. Mitch (Leidner) is a tough kid. He will be a little sore tomorrow. It's good that we have the depth that we have. I appreciate the kid's efforts."

Fales wound up completing 22-of-35 passes for 439 yards and three TDs, but the Gophers intercepted a pair of his pass attempts and did much better controlling SJSU's signal-caller in the second half. Fales was 10-of-19 for just 145 yards and the two INTs after the break. In the third quarter, he was limited to 1-of-6 for just nine yards.

During its non-conference schedule, Minnesota ran the ball 197 times for 1,129 net yards, an average of 5.7 yards per carry. With the six rushing TDs in today's victory against the Spartans, the Gophers have scored 16 rushing touchdowns already this season. Last year, the Gophers scored 14 rushing TDs in 13 games.

Today's game marked the first career start and first full game for Leidner, who has now rushed the ball 46 times for 251 yards (5.5 yards per rush) and five TDs this season. Cobb, who was not listed on the season-opening depth chart, has 53 carries for 332 yards (6.3 yards per rush) and five TDs. Additionally, sophomore RB Rodrick Williams Jr. has 45 attempts for 267 yards (5.9 yards per rush) and three TDs.

"The start of the game was a little tough, but the offensive line did a great job pushing," Cobb said. "The coaches kept telling us to be patient and make the right decisions, so that the big plays can happen. And Mitch [Leidner] did a great job today."

The 43 points scored by the Gophers marked the third time in four games this season that Minnesota has surpassed the 40-point barrier. It's the first time since 2006 that Minnesota has had at least three games with 40 or more points, and the Gophers head into next week's Big Ten home opener versus Iowa with an average of 41.8 points per game.

Fales opened some eyes and proved his value as a pro-style passer who might be the best QB the Gophers face this season. But Minnesota's ability to control the football for more than two-thirds of the game made it difficult for Fales and the Spartans to stay in the game.

What's impressive about the Gophers' rushing attack is that they have been able to continue to be dominant despite the absence of two key starters. Junior running back Donnell Kirkwood has been out of the lineup since injuring his ankle in the season-opening 51-23 win against UNLV on Aug. 29, and Nelson missed his first start at QB this week after suffering a hamstring injury in last week's 29-12 win versus Western Illinois.

Next week, Minnesota faces its first conference test of the season, as the Hawkeyes (3-1) come to town to battle the Gophers for the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy. If the Gophers are able to reclaim the pig from their rivals to the south, this Minnesota rushing game figures to play a key role.

All-Around Effort Nets Another Win

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LAS CRUCES, N.M. -- For the first time this season, Minnesota took its show on the road, and the Golden Gophers turned in another solid all-around performance during a 44-21 win at New Mexico State.

For the second week in a row, head coach Jerry Kill's Gophers scored more than 40 points, with touchdowns coming from the offense, defense and special teams. It's the first time since November 2005 that Minnesota has scored 40 or more points in back-to-back victories, and the team is off to a 2-0 start for the second straight season.

Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson directed a Minnesota offense that racked up 469 total net yards, and the Gophers used their size advantage to rush for 342 yards. Sophomore Rodrick Williams Jr. led Minnesota with 148 yards and a TD, and Nelson added 122 yards and his third rushing TD of the season on a night where the Gophers were without the services of injured junior Donnell Kirkwood.

Minnesota ran 23 fewer plays than the Aggies, but gained 112 more offensive yards, while averaging 8.1 yards per play in the win. The Gophers' passing game netted just 127 yards, but Minnesota was dominant in the running game with an average rushing play of 8.0 yards.

During last week's 51-23 home victory against UNLV, junior defensive back Marcus Jones opened the second half by returning the Rebels' kickoff 98 yards for a TD. This week, Jones once again made his mark on special teams with a 65-yard punt return for a touchdown with 1:22 left in the first half. It was Minnesota's first punt return for a TD since the 2000 season, and it helped send the Gophers into the locker room with a 27-7 lead at the half.

Defensively, the Gophers held the Aggies to just 4.4 yards per play (2.5 per rush), while forcing a fumble that was returned 50 yards for a touchdown by senior linebacker Aaron Hill late in the fourth quarter.

Minnesota (2-0) now returns home for the next three weeks, beginning with next Saturday's matchup with FCS member Western Illinois. The Gophers will attempt to start a season 3-0 for the second year in a row, something that hasn't happened since they opened 5-0 during 2004 and 4-0 during 2005.

Another all-around performance like they've turned in during the first two weeks will go a long ways toward achieving that distinction.

Defense and Special Teams Lead the Way

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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.

Go Gophers! Briean Boddy-Calhoun
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Boddy-Calhoun made his first career interception.
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"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.

Nelson, Leidner Score First Career Rushing TDs

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By athletic communications assistant Michael Molde

Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson made his eighth career start for the Golden Gophers on Thursday night, helping to propel Minnesota to its highest point total ever at TCF Bank Stadium.

The Gophers turned in a very successful debut to the 2013 season, soundly defeating UNLV, 51-23, before a crowd of 44,217. Nelson completed 10-of-22 pass attempts for 99 yards and a touchdown, while also leading the Gophers with 12 rushing attempts for 83 yards and two TDs.

Go Gophers! Philip Nelson
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Nelson ran for two touchdowns in the win.
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The rushing touchdowns were the first of his brief career, and the rushing total also topped his previous best of 67 yards during his first-ever collegiate game at Wisconsin last fall. With the speedy Nelson utilizing his feet, he helped Minnesota sustain drives, going 8-of-14 on third-down conversions.

Nelson gave Minnesota its first lead of the game, breaking free for a 48-yard run up the middle just 1:15 into the second quarter. Just seconds before halftime, he helped the Gophers retake the lead, 16-13, by lofting a touchdown pass to freshman tight end Maxx Williams with 0:18 remaining before the break.

"We knew we had to score at the end of the half. In practice, we worked a lot on the two-minute drill and I think tonight we executed it very well," Nelson said. "When we practice against our own defense, we have a tough time scoring on them in two minutes. I think we did a really great job finishing off the drive the way we wanted to."

In the second half, Minnesota received a boost from its defense and special teams, which combined for three touchdowns to break the game open, and Nelson added his second rushing touchdown midway through the final stanza to give the Gophers a 44-16 lead before giving way to redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner.

In limited minutes, Leidner made his mark, as well. The 6-foot-4, 233-pounder rushed three times for 25 yards and the team's final score of the game, plowing his way into the end zone for a four-yard TD run with 0:42 left.

It was an impressive performance from the Gophers' top two signal-callers, as they limited mistakes and displayed the type of run-pass threats that have been typical in head coach Jerry Kill's offenses.

Nelson's second pass of the game, a long heave down the Minnesota sideline, was intercepted at the 15 yard line. But he was able to avoid any further turnovers, while also directing a Minnesota offense that wasn't whistled for a penalty until the fourth quarter. The Gophers ended their season-opener with just one penalty for five yards.

"I think Philip, just by watching, has a lot of confidence, and the one pick he threw could go either way," head coach Jerry Kill said.

Overall, it was a heck of a start to the season for the Gophers' highly-touted QB from Mankato West High School, and it will give next week's opponent, New Mexico State, lots to prepare for.

#1 Day Until Gopher Football

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Go Gophers! 1 Ernie Wheelwright and Tutu Atwell
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Gophers vs. UNLV (Aug. 29): Buy Tickets

One day more. Tomorrow is the day when Gopher football season truly begins. While you're waiting, here is one final countdown blog. Tutu Atwell and Ernie Wheelwright each wore No. 1 at Minnesota, and they will bring us down the final stretch until kickoff.

Atwell set Minnesota receiving records with 171 career receptions (now third) for 2,640 yards (now third). His 62 receptions in 1996 were a record at the time. That season, he scored a game-winning touchdown against Ball State.

As a senior in 1997, Atwell led the Big Ten with 2,073 all-purpose yards. One of his most memorable games came against Iowa State that year. He accounted for 349 all-purpose yards, with two kick return touchdowns and a receiving touchdown:

Over his career, Atwell put together a string of 34 consecutive games with a reception. He signed with the Detroit Lions as a free agent in 1998. Atwell did not spend long in the NFL, but his name is still all over the Gopher record books.

Wheelwright is one of the few receivers who has surpassed some of Atwell's numbers. He made an immediate impact as a freshman in 2004. He set Minnesota freshman receiving records for yardage (654) and touchdowns (7), which still stand. named him to its Freshman All-American Second Team.

Wheelwright has Minnesota's second-most receiving touchdowns with 26. From 2006 into 2007, he caught a touchdown pass in seven consecutive games. The streak included a 37-yard TD against Michigan State and a 64-yard TD against Iowa, both wins.

In 2007, Wheelwright was the second receiver behind Eric Decker with 775 yards on 66 catches, including nine touchdowns. He hauled in a career-high three TDs against Northwestern. In all, he had six multiple-touchdown games in his career. Wheelwright signed with the Baltimore Ravens in 2008 before ending up in the CFL.

Bonus reading: Wheelwright had to earn the No. 1 jersey

What They're Saying - Aug. 27

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Gophers look to beat the heat (Pioneer Press), which could be extreme (ESPN1500), and the Rebels (GopherSports)

Ra'Shede Hageman's journey (Star Tribune)

Brock Vereen's family (Pioneer Press) will be there to watch him take on his parents' alma mater (FSN)

Teammates as roommates (Pioneer Press)

Look for the Gophers to run the ball (FSN)

Middle linebacker position getting settled (Star Tribune), with Lynn and Wilson both likely to play (ESPN1500)

"More seasoned" Gophers ready to get on the field (FSN)

Gophers prepared to go deep into lineup on Thursday (Star Tribune)

Your 2013 Gophers (Star Tribune) will face some unknowns against the Rebels (FSN)

Football team a "compelling bunch" (Star Tribune)

Athletes vs. Epilepsy looks forward to working with Kill (Pioneer Press)

#2 Days Until Gopher Football

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Go Gophers! 2 Jack Brewer
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Gophers vs. UNLV (Aug. 29): Buy Tickets

We're almost there. Just two days until the Gophers open their football season. Former No. 2 Jack Brewer represents those two days.

Brewer transferred to Minnesota after one season at SMU. During his time in the Maroon and Gold, he switched back and forth between offense and defense several times. Brewer played mainly safety during his redshirt sophomore season in 1999 before going back to wide receiver. He caught 22 passes for 280 yards as a junior.

As a senior in 2001, Brewer was once again a safety. Despite all the position changes, he put together an outstanding season. Brewer led the Big Ten with 155 tackles, 89 of them solo. He was named to the All-Big Ten First Team by the media.

Brewer spent time with the Minnesota Vikings, the New York Giants, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL. Since then, he has become successful off the field. Brewer put his Minnesota bachelor's and master's degrees to use, founding his own advisory and banking firm called the Brewer Group. 

He is heavily involved in philanthropic work through the Brewer Group's Jack Brewer Foundation. In 2009, he received a Congressional Certificate for JBF's work in Malawi.

#3 Days Until Gopher Football

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Go Gophers! 3 Ron Johnson and Bryan Cupito
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Gophers vs. UNLV (Aug. 29): Buy Tickets

Former No. 3 jersey wearers Ron Johnson and Bryan Cupito do the honors of helping with today's countdown to Gopher football. Both rank highly in the Minnesota record books.

Go Gophers! Ron Johnson
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Johnson is the Gophers' No. 2 all-time leading receiver.
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Johnson played receiver for the Gophers from 1998 to 2001. At the time he graduated, Johnson held Minnesota career records for receiving yardage (2,989 - now second), receptions (198 - now second) and touchdown catches (31). He still holds the single-season record with 1,125 yards in 2000. His 11 touchdowns that year tied a school record. Johnson put together an impressive streak of 46 consecutive games with a reception, which tied an NCAA record.

In Minnesota's 1999 win at No. 2 Penn State, Johnson had a key catch on the final drive that ended with a game-winning field goal. He starred in the Gophers' upset of No. 6 Ohio State in 2000, hauling in eight passes for 163 yards. Another of his career highlights was a 181-yard performance against Iowa in 2001.

Johnson was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 2002, and played two seasons with Baltimore before spending some time in the Arena Football League.

Like Johnson, Cupito (2003-06) set several school records during his time as a Gopher. His 7,446 career passing yards and 55 touchdown passes were records until Adam Weber broke them. His pass efficiency rating (138.34) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (2.20) records still stand.

Cupito owns the senior records for completions (214), yardage (2,819) and TD passes (22). He recorded two four-touchdown games and four 250-plus-yard games in 2006. A three-year starter, Cupito went to a bowl game each of those seasons.

In the Gophers' Little Brown Jug victory at Michigan in 2005, Cupito threw for 139 yards and a touchdown on 11-of-23 passing before an injury forced him out of the game. Two games later, he accounted for a career-high 396 yards through the air.

Gophers Look to Beat the Heat and the Rebels

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Going into the 2012 season opener, you might have expected the Gophers to face scorching weather in the Las Vegas desert. But it turns out that this year's Minnesota-UNLV game at TCF Bank Stadium could have more extreme summer weather than the 86-degree game time temperature in Vegas.

August in Minneapolis was unusually mild for the first few weeks of the Gophers' fall camp. Temperatures starting to pick up last week, and the heat and humidity are predicted to hold up for Thursday's game. 

Due to the heat wave, the coaching staff moved both this weekend's practices from the late afternoon up to the morning. Even so, the heat index easily reached the 90s during Sunday's practice.

"You don't want your kids worn out before they play," head coach Jerry Kill said.

Changing practice times and allowing plenty of water breaks are a few ways the Gophers are combating the heat. If the thermometer reads in the 90s at kickoff on Thursday night, Kill plans to go deep into the lineup so that the players on the field are fresh.

In case you missed it: Here are some sound bites from Saturday's media availability.

#4 Days Until Gopher Football

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Go Gophers! 4 Ryan Thelwell
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Gophers vs. UNLV (Aug. 29): Buy Tickets

Ryan Thelwell (1994-96) ranks fifth all-time in career receiving yards for the Gophers. The former wearer of No. 4 represents the number of days left until the Gophers face UNLV in their season opener.

Thelwell and Tutu Atwell teamed up as quarterback Cory Sauter's favorite targets. In 1996, Thelwell set Minnesota's career receiving record, finishing with 2,232 yards, which now ranks fifth. His 1,051-yard total that season was then a record, and still ranks third. Thelwell led the Gophers in all-purpose yards (all receiving).

In Minnesota's 1996 contest against Ball State, Thelwell set a record that still stands when he gained 228 receiving yards. He did so on just eight catches, including one touchdown. Thelwell seems to have been especially successful against Ball State, as he hauled in three touchdowns against the Cardinals a year earlier.

The London, Ontario, native was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers but signed with the San Diego Chargers. He played in a handful of games in 1998, but eventually ended up in his home country playing in the CFL. Thelwell was a CFL All-Star and won three Grey Cups before his retirement.


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