MINNEAPOLIS — In a must-win game, that’s exactly what the Golden Gophers did — and in convincing fashion.
Minnesota had seen its bowl hopes slip after an impressive 4-0 start to the year. Following a perfect nonconference season, the Gophers lost three straight games to start Big Ten play and fell to 4-3. Something needed to happen to get Minnesota back on track.
Enter Philip Nelson.
In his second career start, the true freshman quarterback helped the Gophers halt their losing skid by beating visiting Purdue, 44-28. Now, Minnesota is just one win away from becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2009, and the Gophers have four games remaining on the schedule.
“I feel like any time you have a win, it’s going to give you momentum going into the next week,” said senior quarterback turned receiver MarQueis Gray, who caught four passes for 53 yards Saturday. “We just lost three in a row. To come out today with that victory I feel is going to help us with our mindset all week going into practice and getting prepared for Michigan.”
Whichever team lost Saturday’s game was going to have an uphill climb to be bowl eligible. Purdue entered its matchup against Minnesota with a 3-4 record and, like the Gophers, the Boilermakers were 0-3 in the Big Ten. Now, Purdue has a home game against a surprising 5-3 Penn State squad next week before going on the road to Iowa and Illinois.
Had Minnesota fallen to Purdue, the Gophers could have easily lost five in a row. The Wolverines — who routed Minnesota, 58-0, in Ann Arbor last season — come to Minneapolis next weekend. There’s no telling what kind of turn the team’s morale would have taken had it lost five straight.
Once the Wolverines leave town, Minnesota will have back-to-back road games against Illinois and Nebraska. Though the 2-6 Illini are certainly a beatable team, winning on the road in the Big Ten is never easy — and winning in Lincoln is about as tough a test as there is in the conference.
That’s why Saturday’s game against a reeling Boilermakers squad was as close to a must-win game as second-year coach Jerry Kill has had in his time at Minnesota.
“As a team, we feel like we shouldn’t lose,” said senior cornerback Michael Carter, who had six pass breakups and an interception return for a touchdown to spark the Gophers defense. “I feel like every game is a must-win, and we’re going to approach every game as a must-win.”
After dropping three straight conference games, the Gophers put an end to that slide and regained some of the confidence they had after starting 4-0. Getting the win Saturday was nice, but routing an opponent and tying a season high with 44 points made things even sweeter for Minnesota.
“We try and stay very optimistic within our team,” said wide receiver A.J. Barker, who caught two touchdown passes in the first half of Saturday’s win. “This is a great game for our confidence.”
Barker was a big reason the Gophers got off to a strong start in Saturday’s win. He hauled in five passes from Nelson for a team-high 135 yards. Nelson hit four other receivers in the game but did not complete a pass in the second half. Still, the freshman showed plenty of poise and has given the Gophers a promising future at quarterback — including the remaining four games on the regular-season schedule.
If Minnesota is indeed going to advance to a bowl game, it will do so with Nelson at the helm.
“When we recruited Philip, I think we knew what we were getting,” Kill said. “I’ve been in different programs. When you’re building programs, a lot of it has to do with quarterbacks. I think any young kid that can come in and play like that, am I surprised? No. I think what I’m surprised at more than anything is that he’s like this all the time, even (last week) in Wisconsin when things didn’t go right all the time.”
The Gophers close out the season with Michigan State on Nov. 24. By then, Minnesota may still need a win to reach six victories. Being as mediocre as the Big Ten has been this season, it certainly wouldn’t be surprising if the Gophers had already locked up a bowl bid before their regular-season finale.
That game won’t be easy against a Spartans team that upset Wisconsin in overtime on the road Saturday. But Kill and the Gophers are certainly not looking that far ahead. For one night, they’re not even worrying about next week’s opponent.
Instead, Minnesota will take a little time to revel in Saturday’s victory in a must-win game.
“Football’s a crazy game, and it was just our day today,” Kill said. “We executed well. We’ve been waiting to see some of this to happen. Now the challenge is we’ve got to do it next week, and we play a team that got after us big time a year ago. It never stops, but we are going to enjoy the win here this afternoon. It’s a good win for the kids.”