MINNEAPOLIS — Gophers head coach Jerry Kill wouldn’t commit one way or another when asked Tuesday who his starting quarterback will be Saturday against Iowa. Minnesota may have a few options at the position, but it all depends on the health of sophomore Philip Nelson, who missed last game with a hamstring injury.
Redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner started in Nelson’s place and rushed for four touchdowns in Minnesota’s win against San Jose State. As the Gophers enter the Big Ten season, a question at quarterback lingers.
“I don’t want to say a statement and not be truthful,” Kill said at Tuesday’s press conference. “I (saw) Philip this morning and he seems to be getting along pretty good. We’ll start out practice and see how things go. We’re not going to change our style with what we do offensively.”
Nelson assumed the starting role midway through last season as a true freshman and entered fall camp as the frontrunner to once again be the starter. But Nelson was dinged up in Minnesota’s third game against Western Illinois and did not return. The Gophers opted to be cautious with him as he recovered from the hamstring injury.
That appears to be the case again this week, although the next few days of practice will be important in determining Nelson’s status.
“He’s going to need to be 100 percent for us to give him the green light,” Kill said. “We certainly will if he’s ready to go, but we’re in a good situation there. Through practice all this time, we’ve repped both quarterbacks. Nothing’s really going to change.”
Meanwhile, Leidner said he’ll take the same approach in practice this week even though he’s not sure which quarterback will start.
“We’ll see how it goes, but in terms of preparation it’s the same that it’s always been,” Leidner said. “I’m just trying to do the same thing every single day, just keep getting better, keep working and competing and helping my team get better so we can keep winning football games,” Leidner said.”
Discipline remains key: Through four games this season, Minnesota has been the least-penalized team in the Big Ten. The Gophers have been flagged for an average of just 23 penalty yards per game (92 yards on 10 total penalties).
Minnesota has also remained disciplined in terms of hanging onto the football. The Gophers have lost just three turnovers through four games while forcing six (two fumbles, four interceptions).
That recipe of minimizing penalties and turnovers has led to success throughout non-conference play. Kill knows it will be even more important now that the Big Ten season is here.
“You look at the NFL, you look at college football, there’s no margin for error,” Kill said. “If we turn over the ball and have penalties, then you’ll see something in the loss column. There’s a reason we’ve had success to this point, but again, you’re only as good as your last game.”
Iowa ranks in the middle of the Big Ten in terms of turnover margin (plus-2), and the Hawkeyes rank eighth in the conference in penalty yards per game (53.8). While the Gophers have remained nearly penalty-free through non-conference play, that could all change during the Big Ten slate.
“Bigger game, Big Ten, Iowa, rivalry game — is someone going to get nervous and jump offsides? I don’t know,” Kill said. “But hopefully we have enough discipline that we don’t do that. If we don’t make those type of errors, then we’ll have a chance for success.”
Asked whether Minnesota’s rivalry game with Iowa could be a distraction that ultimately derails the Gophers from their disciplined play, Kill noted just how much his team has had to deal with this year — including playing without their coach two weeks ago after Kill suffered a seizure at halftime.
“After last week, I think we can focus on anything,” Kill said. “We’ve had enough distractions and things around here for a lifetime the last two years.”
Defense prepares for Iowa’s Weisman: When Minnesota lost to Iowa on the road last season, Hawkeyes junior running back Mark Weisman had plenty to do with the outcome. The 6-foot-1, 236-pound Weisman ran for 177 yards and a touchdown as Iowa handed the Gophers a 31-13 loss.
Now a junior, Weisman has topped the 100-yard rushing mark in three of his first four games this season. Western Michigan kept Weisman bottled up last weekend as he gained just 43 yards on 10 carries. Still, he’s averaging 4.9 yards per carry this year and has found the end zone three times.
Minnesota saw last year what Weisman is capable of and hopes to avoid the big Hawkeyes back from running loose this weekend at TCF Bank Stadium.
“The whole key for us defensively, again, you don’t prepare for one guy; you’ve got to prepare for the guys up front,” Kill said. “He’s a big back. He’s hard to tackle, has good balance and great vision, and he fits into what they do.”
Iowa has averaged 244.0 rushing yards per game this season, while Minnesota’s defense has allowed just 102.8 yards per game on the ground.