MINNEAPOLIS — After losing three straight conference games to open up the Big Ten schedule, the University of Minnesota football team got its first Big Ten win of the season. Led by true freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, the Gophers dispensed of visiting Purdue by a 44-28 final — tying Minnesota’s season-high point total. Here’s a look at the grades for the Gophers in their win over the Boilermakers:
Running offense: B-plus
In last weekend’s loss against Wisconsin, the Gophers’ running game was virtually non-existent. Against Purdue, Minnesota racked up 212 total rushing yards. Redshirt sophomore Donnell Kirkwood gained 134 yards on 22 carries, an average of 6.1 yards per carry. While Kirkwood didn’t find the end zone, he was able to grind down Purdue — and the clock — in the second half with the Gophers holding onto a sizable lead. Of the 134 Kirkwood picked up on the ground, 90 came in the second half. Nelson ran 16 times against Wisconsin but carried the ball just nine times for 37 yards on Saturday. His best run of the day was a 25-yard scramble up the middle for a first down. Freshman running back Rodrick Williams chipped in 43 yards on nine carries.
Passing offense: A-minus
Nelson followed up last Saturday’s debut with an even stronger performance. The true freshman was 15-of-22 for 246 yards and three touchdowns. Just as important was the fact that he did not turn the ball over at all, something he did twice in the game against Wisconsin. Nelson connected with wide receiver A.J. Barker five times for 135 yards, including touchdowns of 38 and 63 yards in the second quarter to break the game open. Before Barker was injured on his second touchdown, he was able to find plenty of separation between himself and the Purdue secondary, giving Nelson a wide-open target to hit. The only knock on the Gophers’ passing game: they didn’t complete a pass in the second half. Leading 34-7 at halftime, Minnesota didn’t have much of a need to pass. Still, Nelson was 0-for-5 through the air in the second half.
Running defense: B
One week after allowing Wisconsin to gain 337 total rushing yards, Minnesota’s running defense stepped up against Purdue. The Boilermakers finished the game with 183 total rushing yards and did not record a rushing touchdown. Akeem Shavers led all Purdue players with 78 yards on 11 carries, but 40 of those yards came on one play. Outside of Shavers’ 40-yard run, Minnesota’s defense limited the big plays — something it wasn’t able to do against the Badgers one week earlier.
Passing defense: A-minus
Purdue ended up using three different quarterbacks on Saturday, and none of the three finished with over 100 yards passing. Starter Caleb TerBush had very little success through the air, going just 5-of-18 for 29 yards and an interception before backup Robert Marve replaced him. Marve was 11-of-19 for 97 yards and two scores. Meanwhile, Rob Henry completed five of his six passes for 52 yards and a garbage time touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Gophers cornerback Michael Carter had the best game of his career, tying a school record with six pass breakups. He broke up consecutive passes on one Purdue drive and followed it with an interception of TerBush that he returned 43 yards for a touchdown early in the first quarter.
Special teams: B-plus
Kicker Jordan Wettstein entered Saturday’s game just 9-for-16 on field goals, but he drilled his first three field goals of the game from 40, 35 and 44 yards out. His only miss was a 45-yarder in the fourth quarter. Punter Christian Eldred only had to punt three times, but one of them was a shank that went just 16 yards after the Gophers’ first drive of the game. Four of Wettstein’s eight kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. Minnesota’s return game didn’t play much of a factor into the field position battle — the Gophers had just four kickoff returns for a total of 70 yards and three punt returns for 38 yards.
Minnesota’s win was convincing, and the Gophers are now just one win from being bowl eligible as a result. Nelson showed off the arm that made him the top-ranked high school quarterback in the state of Minnesota last year. As lopsided as the Gophers’ win was, though, Minnesota still did not play a complete game. Purdue outscored the Gophers 21-10 in the second half, including 21 unanswered points to end the game. Minnesota will take the win, but it knows it will have to play strong for four quarters if it wants to beat Michigan next weekend at TCF Bank Stadium.