Minnesota's Marcus Jones returned the second half kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown and the Gophers pulled away for a 51-23 victory over UNLV on Thursday, the 23rd loss in a row on the road for the Rebels.
Minnesota, which scored twice on special teams, turned a tight game into a romp without any scoring by the offense for the first 23-plus minutes after the intermission. Ra'Shede Hageman blocked a field goal that Martez Shabazz picked up and raced for a 78-yard touchdown in the third quarter, and Briean Boddy-Calhoun scored on an 89-yard interception return in the fourth.
UNLV's Tim Cornett rushed 20 times for 80 yards, including a 26-yard touchdown run to cap a commanding opening drive for the Rebels. Shaquille Murray-Lawrence gained 108 yards on four carries for UNLV, which last won away from Las Vegas was Oct. 24, 2009, at New Mexico.
Philip Nelson ran for two touchdowns for Minnesota, including a 48-yard sprint in the second quarter. His best throw of the night was to freshman tight end Maxx Williams at the edge of the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown pass with 18 seconds left in the first half. That score gave the Gophers the lead for good.
Nelson, though, was off the mark a lot. He went 10 for 22 for 99 yards and an interception and also fumbled on second-and-goal at the 1-yard line late in the second quarter. He recovered, but after an overthrow left the Gophers settling for a field goal. Backup Mitch Leidner relieved him late and ran for a score of his own.
For the most part, the Rebels had the better sophomore quarterback. Nick Sherry, who finished 35 for 50 for 226 yards, threw across his body on fourth down for a 34-yard touchdown pass to Devante Davis that put UNLV ahead 13-10 with 5:04 left in the first half. He added a short scoring toss in the closing minutes.
But Sherry, who was picked off three times by the Gophers last year, threw two interceptions in the fourth, the first of which went right to Boddy-Calhoun, one of two new starting cornerbacks for Minnesota.
Taking the Gophers to triple overtime in a 30-27 loss last season in the opener in Las Vegas certainly gave the Rebels some confidence, even though they won only two games in 2012, their third year under coach Bobby Hauck. Their strong start here didn't last, though, after a kickoff-time temperature of 92 degrees that felt more like Nevada than Minnesota in late August. Six misting fans on each sideline helped keep the players cool, and a strong student-section showing yielded a crowd of 44,208.
The last time the Gophers scored this many points was 63 in 2006 for a win over Indiana at the Metrodome.
Roland Johnson also blocked an extra point for Minnesota on a tough night for UNLV kicker Nolan Kohorst, who also missed a 49-yard field goal. Kohorst made a 32-yarder after Sherry's throw to the near corner of the end zone went in and out of the hands of Jerry Rice Jr., the son of the Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver.
One negative for the Gophers was running back Donnell Kirkwood, who limped off with an injury to his right ankle after totaling only 30 yards on 11 carries.