LAS VEGAS — Win pretty or win ugly — it doesn’t matter if you’re the Gophers football team.
Minnesota accomplished the latter Thursday in its season-opener, defeating lowly 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 nearly 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.
Kill stressed the importance of winning at UNLV in the offseason, and for good reason: In last season’s opener, a two-point loss at 25th-ranked USC sent the team down a losing path from which it never recovered.
Now, with an easy schedule on the horizon, Minnesota is in a great position to start its season with four — perhaps even five or six — consecutive wins.
Thursday’s win hardly felt like a road game, as Minnesota fans made up nearly half the crowd of 16,013. But the Gophers struggled against a UNLV team that went 2-10 last season in a weak conference. They struggled to score against a Rebels defense that allowed more than 40 points per game last year. They failed to play with discipline and they failed to seize opportunities.
“An ugly win is better than a pretty loss,” senior linebacker Keanon Cooper said. “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, senior quarterback MarQueis 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 Gophers safety Derrick Wells. That opened the door for Gophers placekicker Jordan Wettstein to make the game-winning 32-yard field goal.
Wettstein had missed and hit from 32 yards earlier in the game, but he said his game-winning kick felt like any other.
“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 effects of the team’s month-long preseason camp were less obvious. Minnesota committed 11 penalties, fumbled one punt return and misplayed a second, shanked two punts and converted three of 15 third-down plays.
It was an awful showing for Gray, the consensus star on a Gophers team with bowl-game expectations for 2012. The senior overthrew wide-open receivers at least six times, three of which came on would-be touchdown catches. His accuracy and decision making showed no improvement from a season ago, when he completed only 51 percent of his passes and threw as many interceptions — eight — as touchdowns.
On Thursday, Gray completed 17 of 30 passes for 269 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He also rushed for 68 yards.
After the game, Gray said that he was too anxious and that the offense lacked rhythm. That was certainly the case for the first 60 minutes, when Minnesota scored just 13 points.
“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. Running backs Donnell Kirkwood and James Gillum combined for 27 carries and 132 yards. Gillum’s 16-yard score in the second quarter was the Gophers’ only touchdown in regulation.
Minnesota’s offense outgained UNLV’s 478 to 275, but poor special teams play caused it to start many drives deep in its own territory.
“It was certainly a struggle,” Kill said. “I’m happy with the win, but I know we’ve got to get a lot better in executing. We had a lot of young kids that hadn’t played, but there’s no excuse for that. I think we’re better than that — there’s no question.”
Improvement has been an early theme for Minnesota’s young squad, and on defense, it showed Thursday. The Gophers’ defensive line sacked Sherry twice and forced him to make bad throws, including three interceptions. In 12 games last season, Minnesota had just four interceptions.
The team has grown stronger and fitter in the offseason too, which was evident by its resilient play late in a game in which temperatures hovered in the high 80s.
Still, Minnesota may have cleared its biggest hurdle 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.”