MINNEAPOLIS — A weeklong smokescreen, a surprise decision, and a stubborn commitment.
And a bronze pig riding comfortably back down I-35.
Often-devious Minnesota coach Jerry Kill never ruled out starting Philip Nelson at quarterback against rival Iowa. But with the team’s first-stringer thought to be operating at less than 100 percent earlier in the week, it was widely expected Mitch Leidner would fill in for the second contest in a row.
Yet somewhere between the start of pregame warm-ups and Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. start time, Nelson told Kill he was good to go.
And Kill listened.
“We felt comfortable,” Kill said after Minnesota’s 23-7 loss. “If he could play, he would.”
But rather than return and help reclaim Floyd of Rosedale in front of a hyped, 50,000-strong homecoming contingent, Nelson didn’t appear much more comfortable than he had limping off the TCF Bank Stadium turf with a hamstring injury two weeks ago.
The sophomore hesitated to run through the few open holes a staunch Hawkeyes defensive front allowed. He threw behind some open receivers, too far in front of others. He held onto the ball long enough for a fairly vanilla Iowa pass rush to sack him four times.
He had little help. Minnesota’s defense couldn’t get off the field on third down, and the ground game that mashed up cupcake opponents netted 56 yards against the nation’s No. 12 rush defense.
But Nelson, who insisted his leg didn’t bother him or affect his decision-making, was off.
“It felt good to get back out there,” said Nelson, who took over and started Minnesota’s final seven games last year as a true freshman, “but obviously, you want a better result than what we had.”
He completed 12 of 24 passes for 135 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions. After trotting for 205 yards and three scores during the Gophers’ first two victories, he carried nine times for -18 yards — most of which are attributed to sacks by James Morris, Dominic Alvis, Louis Trinca-Pasat and Nate Meier.
At no point, Kill said, did he seriously consider going to Leidner, who rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns last week against San Jose State.
Not even at halftime when Minnesota trailed 17-0 and had amassed a whopping 80 yards of offense. With Iowa’s front four plowing through a young line and disrupting almost every option read and handoff, Kill didn’t think it wise to go to his run-first redshirt freshman.
“If we’d have got into a situation where Philip was using his legs a lot and having to run, then yes,” Kill said when asked about the possibility of inserting Leidner. “It never got in that situation. We couldn’t run the ball.”
The Gophers’ depth chart listed both Nelson and Leidner as options to start against the Hawkeyes, who retained the rivalry’s traveling trophy for the second year in a row. Kill and Nelson met Friday night and discussed his status again just before kickoff Saturday.
A coach letting an injured player dictate whether he plays or not? Absolutely, Kill said.
“It was going to be his call,” Kill said. “We talked to him a little bit last night, and then we talked to him before the game. … He felt that he was 100 percent, that he’d be able to go.”
Said Nelson: “I know my body best, and (Kill) wasn’t able to really make the judgment based off how I was feeling.”
It wasn’t nearly the comeback the Mankato native had hoped for.
On the Gophers’ first two series, they gained five yards on six plays. In the second quarter, Nelson threw a pass behind tight end Drew Goodger that wound up in the hands of linebacker Christian Kirksey, then tossed well behind Isaac Fruechte on third down to halt Minnesota’s next series.
Iowa went up 17-0 two plays later on a slip screen pass that went for 74 yards.
Nelson did find wideout Derrick Engel on several occasions, including a 23-yard touchdown pass with 3 minutes left in the third quarter. Safety Brock Vereen intercepted a pass in the end zone on Iowa’s next possession, and the Gophers suddenly trailed just 20-7 with an awakened crowd and more than a quarter to keep rallying.
As he had all day, Engel shook a defensive back trying to bump him off his route and was wide open sprinting down the right hash on third and long.
Nelson overthrew him by 5 yards, and Minnesota never threatened again.
“We just missed a couple throws that could’ve changed the game for us,” said Engel, who caught five passes for 67 yards. “We’ve just got to move on and learn from it.”
Kill denied he saw anything from Nelson that suggested limited mobility but declined to name him the sure-fire starter moving forward. A proponent of the two-quarterback system since his days at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois, Kill said Nelson and Leidner will continue to share practice reps this week as they have since fall camp.
Minnesota has yet to use both interchangeably this season, but Kill said that’s a possibility next Saturday at the Big House against No. 18 Michigan.
“As I’ve said all along, we’ll need both of them in what we do,” Kill said. “(Philip) was our guy at the start, and Mitch played, came in and did a good job, and we’ll keep working with those two kids.”