MINNEAPOLIS — UNLV coach Bobby Hauck looked at the scoreboard at one point in the second half and saw his team had outgained Minnesota 420 yards to 234.
By those numbers, the game shouldn’t have been close.
And it wasn’t.
But it was a runaway in favor of the Golden Gophers, who took advantage of a UNLV special teams performance that couldn’t have been more egregious.
Minnesota used a 98-yard kickoff return and a 51-yard return of a blocked field goal during the third quarter to blow open a competitive game and roll to a 51-23 victory at TCF Bank Stadium on Thursday night.
Take away those plays, and Hauck said, “I think we win. We went to the locker room at halftime feeling pretty good about ourselves and kicking ourselves for not being up. But those count. They are the plays in the game.”
UNLV has lost 23 consecutive road games, three short of the school record set from 1994 to 1998.
The statistics told a much closer story, with the Rebels outgaining Minnesota 419-320 and gaining 21 first downs to 17 by the Gophers. Minnesota balanced out that disparity by racking up 303 yards in returns.
In addition to the block returned for a touchdown, the Rebels allowed a blocked extra point, missed a 49-yard field goal and sailed a kickoff out of bounds.
Those are enough mistakes to cover an entire season, not just one night of football.
And the timing was particularly biting.
UNLV trailed only 16-13 at halftime — after giving up a touchdown with 18 seconds left in the second quarter — and then watched Minnesota’s Marcus Jones take the second-half kickoff 98 yards and change the game’s complexion.
Then midway through the third quarter, the Gophers’ Ra’Shede Hageman blocked Nolan Kohorst’s 37-yard field-goal attempt, and Martez Shabazz picked up the loose ball and went 51 yards. The touchdown put the Gophers ahead 30-13 and all but ended any doubts.
Hauck, who also serves as the special teams coordinator, blamed not using live tackling in training camp as a reason for the difficulties, saying he was concerned about injuries. He also said he particularly didn’t want to injure the front-line players, and used mostly reserves to take their roles.
Starting defensive end Jordan Sparkman said he would be so eager to help on special teams that it “makes my blood boil.”
“Seeing mistakes like that are easy to fix,” Sparkman said. “Anything I could do to help the team is something that I’m there for, so I’m sure we’ll be able to correct them in practice this week.”
UNLV made one last effort to get back into the game, driving deep into Gophers territory. But Sherry was intercepted, and cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun raced 89 yards for a touchdown and 37-16 lead with 10:41 left in the game.
“I made a mistake on my read, and it cost us big time,” Sherry said.
Sherry then was intercepted on the next drive, but the ball went off wide receiver Jack Killian’s hand.
Those were unfortunate plays for Sherry, who mostly played a sharp game even without wide receiver Marcus Sullivan, who stayed home for personal reasons. Sherry completed 35 of 50 passes for 226 yards and two touchdowns.
Running back Tim Cornett rushed for 80 yards on 20 carries, and scored the game’s first touchdown on a 26-yard dash up the middle.
Backup Shaquille Murray-Lawrence finished with 108 yards on just four rushes.
Statistics were little consolation in the end for UNLV, which next plays Sept. 7 against Arizona at Sam Boyd Stadium.
“Time of possession, yardage, first downs — all that stuff we did pretty well — doesn’t really matter when you don’t win on the scoreboard,” Hauck said. “With that being said, I think we’re going to have a good football team.
“We’ve got to clean up, and we cannot make big errors. Frankly, there are very few teams in all of college football that can make the big errors like we did today and win the game.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at email@example.com or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.