MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota’s three-game losing streak is over as the Gophers defeated the Purdue Boilermakers by a 44-28 final to earn their first Big Ten win of the season. It was Minnesota’s first win over Purdue since 2009 and the Gophers’ first Big Ten victory since beating Illinois in the last game of last season. Minnesota’s 44 points scored matched a season high and was the most in a Big Ten regulation game since scoring 63 against Indiana in 2006. Here are five things we learned from the Gophers’ fifth win of the season. 1. Freshman quarterback Philip Nelson is the real deal.
Nelson was thrust into the starting role last Saturday against Wisconsin. The true freshman fared decently in his first career start, going 13-for-24 for 149 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions.
On Saturday, in his first start at TCF Bank Stadium, Nelson single-handedly lifted Minnesota to a 34-7 halftime lead. Through two quarters, Nelson was 15-of-17 passing for 246 yards and three touchdowns.
Among the three touchdowns was a 63-yard completion to a wide-open A.J. Barker. Nelson also had passes of 34, 33 and 38 yards in the first half as he picked apart Purdue’s secondary. He also didn’t throw an interception and did not take a sack in the win.
“I think any time as a true freshman quarterback in your second start, he didn’t turn over the football, threw catchable balls and we moved the chains and we scored,” said head coach Jerry Kill. “That’s what you ask for from a quarterback, and he did all those things. He throws a very accurate deep ball and really got into the flow of the game.”
While Nelson didn’t throw many deep passes last week against the Badgers, he aired it out plenty in the first half against the Boilermakers. On the 63-yard touchdown, Barker was able to get past the Purdue secondary and had plenty of time to sit under the pass from Nelson before scampering into the end zone.
“Throughout our preparation, we noticed that Purdue, their corners liked to bite on some short game stuff,” Nelson said of the deeper passes. “We put in some double routes and we caught them jumping early. … We kept going to it.”
With the Gophers leading comfortably at the half, Nelson cooled down after halftime. The freshman did not complete a pass in the second half, going 0-for-5. Minnesota didn’t need him to throw, however, as it ran plenty after the half to protect its big lead and chew up the clock.
2. Cornerback Michael Carter has been the MVP of the defense for the past few weeks.
You’d be hard pressed to find a player who had a better defensive series than Carter did on Saturday. On Purdue’s opening drive of the second half, Carter had three pass breakups, including two on consecutive plays. Then, on third and 10 for the Boilermakers, Carter stepped into the passing lane to intercept Purdue quarterback Caleb TerBush.
“This is my 30th year of coaching. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a corner have things go like that,” Kill said of Carter’s impressive series. “But it was great. They kept throwing over there.”
Carter returned the pick 43 yards for his first career touchdown, giving the Gophers a commanding 41-7 lead. The senior cornerback finished the game with six pass break-ups, tying a school record in what was easily the best game of Carter’s career.
“I just felt like I was in the zone,” Carter said. “… I like the ball thrown my way so I can make a play.”
3. A.J. Barker continues to be the Gophers’ top receiving threat.
The walk-on wide receiver had a huge first half, reeling in five passes from Nelson for 135 yards and two touchdowns. Barker scored on passes of 38 and 63 yards in the second quarter, with his second touchdown putting Minnesota up 28-7.
“A.J. is a great receiver. He’s very smart,” Nelson said. “He does a lot of things to gain separation. I’ve never really seen a receiver be able to gain that much separation from a defender like him.”
But Barker was injured on his second touchdown catch after being tackled in the end zone and did not return to the game. Despite that, he ended up as the Gophers’ top receiver. MarQueis Gray had four catches for 53 yards, while two other players had two catches.
Despite the injury, Barker said he was “cautiously optimistic” he would be able to return to action next Saturday against Michigan. Barker was the top target of Gray and backup Max Shortell earlier in the year, and now it appears he’s developed a chemistry with Nelson just two games into the freshman quarterback’s career.
“He’s got an extremely quick release and he’s very decisive back there, which is huge,” Barker said of Nelson. “You have to be able to read the coverages and make the right decisions. They’re not going to be perfect all the time, but he’s done a great job. I have tremendous confidence in Phil.”
4. The win was impressive, but Minnesota still needs to play a solid four quarters of football.
For whatever reason, the Gophers let off the gas after jumping out to a commanding lead Saturday against Purdue. While Minnesota outscored the Boilermakers 34-7 in the first half, Purdue outscored the Gophers 21-10 after halftime. It was too little, too late for the Boilermakers, but it was a sign that Minnesota perhaps lost interest late in the game.
Along those lines, Nelson did not complete a pass in the second half — he was 0-for-5 after halftime. In order to win close games against tough Big Ten opponents, Minnesota has to be solid on both offense and defense for all four quarters — not just one half.
“I feel like we played really good for about two and a half quarters, and then things started slowing down,” Nelson said. “We still have a lot of room for improvement. I really think we have yet to show our best. As soon as this team can put together four quarters, we’ll be really tough to beat.”
5. The Gophers could very well be going bowling this winter.
With Saturday’s convincing victory, Minnesota improved to 5-3 on the season and is now just one win away from being bowl eligible.
After starting the year 4-0, a bowl game almost appeared to be a certainty. But the Gophers dropped three straight Big Ten games to fall to 4-3 and needed to get back on track if they hoped to be playing somewhere in late December or early January.
Now, needing just one win with four games to play, the Gophers are in prime position to earn their first trip to a bowl game since 2009 and are hoping to build off Saturday’s big victory.
“I think it’s going to help us out a lot,” Gray said of the win. “Going up to another team, a whole (different) week with the mindset that we just played a great game. … To finish with this win is going to help us going into next week, and hopefully we come out with another win and we’ll be bowl eligible and just keep going on from there.”