Fleck, Gophers run over New Mexico State 38-0 in Jerry Kill's return to Minnesota

Mohamed Ibrahim #24 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers is tackled by Dylan Early #11 of the New Mexico State Aggies in the second quarter of the game at Huntington Bank Stadium on September 1, 2022 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  ((Photo by David Berding/Getty Images))

The University of Minnesota football team checked several boxes in Thursday night's 38-0 win over New Mexico State at Huntington Bank Stadium in Jerry Kill's first return to campus since 2015.

The Gophers dominated an inferior opponent. Mo Ibrahim and Trey Potts played in their first games since serious injuries ended their 2021 seasons. PJ Fleck and Kill shared a handshake and conversation pregame, despite Kill's negative comments about Fleck and the university after he was hired in 2017 to replace Tracy Claeys, who was fired after a 9-4 season in 2016.

Kill had to step down as Minnesota's coach seven games into the 2015 season due to health concerns with epilepsy. Fleck sought out Kill on the field before the game, and the two also shared a moment after Minnesota's 1-0 start.

"I’ve never not shaken the hand of a college coach, ever. I respect Jerry Kill wholeheartedly. I’ve never said one thing, ever, negative about Jerry Kill. What I told him at the beginning was thank you for all that you’ve done for my career. Always had the utmost respect for you, I always will, simple as that," Fleck said after the game. "I know this, I appreciate Jerry’s passion because I know how bad Jerry loves this place. The one thing I’ll say is so do I. I know how he feels because I want to be here. It’s a very special place to me and I couldn’t imagine not being here."

Minnesota entered the game as 36.5-point favorites, and got one of their few comfortable non-conference wins under Fleck as he starts his sixth season. Last year, Minnesota was 31-point favorites to Bowling Green, but ended up losing 14-10. That wasn’t happening Thursday night.

The win marked Minnesota's first shutout to open a regular season since 2006. For the most part, it wasn't flashy. The Gophers simply ran the ball down the Aggies' throat.

The Gophers ran for 297 of their 485 total yards, had five rushing touchdowns and averaged 5.2 yards per carry on the night. Minnesota's five scores were all in short yardage situations, and came on plays that combined for eight yards.

In his first game back from an Achilles injury, Mo Ibrahim had 21 carries for 132 yards and two touchdowns. That marks 10 straight 100-yard rushing games for Ibrahim, which dates back to the 2019 season. 

"Emotional. What he’s been through and what he’s overcome is what Row the Boat is all about," Fleck said.

"It was just the next part of the process. The next step was playing against somebody else, I wasn’t going to hold back so it was all part of the plan. Checked boxes, checked them all," Ibrahim said.

Trey Potts, also back from an undisclosed injury last season at Purdue that put him in the hospital for nearly a week, had 17 carries for 89 yards and a third quarter touchdown. Potts and Ibrahim got the game balls in the post game celebration.

"This guy, thanks to the doctors at Purdue and the medical team there, thanks to the doctors and medical team here at the University of Minnesota, he’s alive. Not only is he alive, he ran for a lot of yards and a touchdown tonight. You never knew if he’d ever play again, that’s what Row the Boat is all about," Fleck said. "They both deserved a game ball tonight, and it’s not about the yards or the stats, it’s about what they’ve overcome. That’s why I love this game so much."

Tanner Morgan was 13-of-19 passing for 174 yards, and had five rushes for 22 yards and a short touchdown. The Gophers led 24-0 at the half and out-gained the Aggies 274-49 in the first half.

The Gophers’ defense, top-10 in the country last year, allowed six first downs, less than 50 total yards and got sacks from Thomas Rush and Danny Striggow before reserves started entering in the fourth quarter. They allowed 91 total yards, just 2.8 yards per play and Terell Smith got the only turnover of the night with a fourth quarter interception. New Mexico State came to Minneapolis just four days after losing its opener to Nevada last Saturday night.

The comfortable lead allowed several reserves to play in the second half, including back-up quarterbacks Cole Kramer and Athan Kaliakmanis in the fourth quarter.

The Gophers got the dominating win they were looking for, and are 1-0 as they host FCS foe Western Illinois next Saturday.

"That first game is always exciting. You’ve been beating each other up, Minnesota on Minnesota, since January and to get that opportunity to finally play against somebody else and play the game that you’ve been working for, leave nothing out on the field," linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin said. "You have to appreciate those moments because they’re so limited. To have that first game under the belt is awesome."