MINNEAPOLIS — This is Philip Nelson’s team. The Gophers made that clear all fall leading up to Thursday’s opener against UNLV.
So what can be taken away from Nelson’s first start of his sophomore year? The results were certainly mixed for the quarterback from Mankato.
Minnesota didn’t need Nelson to do too much with his arm, which was probably a good thing given how the passing game looked in Thursday’s 51-23 win. Nelson underthrew several receivers — including one that resulted in an interception — and missed a few other receivers on open looks. He finished the game 10-for-22 for 99 yards and did find freshman tight end Maxx Williams for a 10-yard score through the air, Williams’ first catch with the Gophers.
Nelson eventually gave way to redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner in the fourth quarter as the game was winding down. Afterwards, Nelson admitted that he and the offense have work to do before next week’s game against New Mexico State.
“We definitely have some things to clean up,” Nelson said. “We knew that (UNLV) had a new defensive coordinator and they mixed some things up on us this year. … We need to complete more plays and move the ball better, so we have to execute better on offense.”
While the aerial attack was quiet Thursday, Nelson did some damage with his feet. When all was said and done Thursday, Nelson led all Gophers with 83 rushing yards on 12 carries. Two of Minnesota’s four offensive touchdowns came via Nelson’s legs. He found wide open space up the middle of the field for a 48-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter, and later scored on a short 5-yard scamper in the fourth quarter to all but seal Minnesota’s victory.
“We knew that their ends were going to try to pinch and play in between, and we had a good play call there,” Nelson said of his long scoring play. “It was just off to the races after that.”
Nelson started Minnesota’s final seven games last year as a true freshman when he was thrust into the role on the road against Wisconsin. After a handful of lackluster performances, he bounced back to throw for 138 yards and two touchdowns against Texas Tech in the Gophers’ bowl game loss last year.
With half a season of experience under his belt, the hope was that Nelson would take a big step forward in his sophomore year as both a quarterback and a leader. He certainly looked poised at times on Thursday but it’s too early to make much out of one performance, especially when it came in a rout.
“I think he did a good job,” said coach Jerry Kill. “I think Philip, just by watching, has a lot of confidence. The one pick he threw could go either way. It’s a team game and we have to work together.”
Kirkwood leaves game with injury: Gophers junior running back Donnell Kirkwood left the game in the third quarter after injuring his ankle on a 1-yard run. He hopped to the sideline on one leg and had his right leg examined by team trainers. After going to the locker room to be examined, Kirkwood returned early in the fourth quarter with a boot on his right foot.
In Kirkwood’s absence, sophomore Roderick Williams Jr., received his first action of the game. Williams carried the ball four times for 13 yards. David Cobb also got extra snaps as a result of Kirkwood’s injury and had 72 yards — including a 60-yard run — on six carries.
Before leaving with an injury, Kirkwood had 11 carries for 30 yards as Minnesota’s go-to back. There was no word after the game on Kirkwood’s status for next week’s game against New Mexico State, but Kill definitely sounded concerned about the team’s depth at running back. The Gophers were already without freshman speedster Berkley Edwards, who was out with an ankle injury. Now Kirkwood — who ran for 926 yards last year — is dinged up, too.
“We don’t have as much depth at running back, and some places like that, with Donnell getting a turned ankle,” Kill said. “Berkley being out is a situation where I’m concerned about that and we’re not deep at some of those areas.”
Penalties not an issue: Minnesota committed 81 penalties in 2012, third-most among all Big Ten teams. The Gophers averaged 50.2 penalty yards per game, which was something Kill hoped to iron out in 2013.
One game in, his team is on the right track. Minnesota was whistled for just one penalty, a five-yard infraction for an ineligible player downfield on a pass. The Gophers were also flagged for running into the kicker during a UNLV punt, but that penalty was declined. The Rebels, meanwhile, also committed just one penalty, a 15-yard pass interference call that kept a Gophers drive alive.
Given how penalty-prone his team was at times last year, Kill will gladly take five penalty yards per game this season.
“I’m pleased that we didn’t have any false starts, all that kind of stuff. That’s a great thing,” Kill said. “Is it better? Yes, it’s better. We didn’t have a lot of penalties. But we still can’t make those mistakes.”