5 things: Gophers find QB, now winning games used to lose

It was a wild one in Bloomington, Ind., but the Gophers hung on to escape with a 42-39 win Saturday against Indiana. Minnesota is now 7-2, winning seven games for the first time since 2008. The Gophers recovered a Hoosiers fumble in the final minute to seal the win. Minnesota now prepares to face Penn State next Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Here’s a look at five things we learned from Saturday’s crazy game at Memorial Stadium.

1. A crazy win still counts as a win

Minnesota appeared to have this game in hand after taking a 35-13 lead early in the third quarter. Indiana’s offense struggled to get on track, and the Gophers were in control. But after a flurry of points from Indiana’s offense, Minnesota needed a touchdown with just over three minutes to play and a late fumble to escape Bloomington with a road victory. Quarterback Philip Nelson hit tight end Maxx Williams for a 50-yard score with 3:06 to play, giving the Gophers a 42-39 lead after the Hoosiers took the lead a few minutes earlier. As Indiana drove down the field in the final minute, quarterback Nate Sudfeld threw a backward pass to Tevin Coleman, and Gophers linebacker Aaron Hill recovered. It was a bizarre ending to an equally bizarre game, but Minnesota shouldn’t be complaining about the end result. Had the Gophers allowed the Hoosiers to score in the final seconds, it would have been a brutal loss. Instead, it’s an ugly win but still a win nonetheless. Minnesota has now won three straight Big Ten games after beginning conference play 0-2, winning two of those three on the road. This is no doubt a game Gophers fans will be talking about for quite some time. If not for that late Hoosiers fumble, they may have been talking about it for the wrong reasons.

2. The Gophers can hang with the high-powered Hoosiers … barely

There was plenty of talk this week about just how potent Indiana’s offense is. The quick-strike attack was one of the most dangerous in the Big Ten as the Hoosiers had shown they were capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. Indiana’s quarterbacks combined to average 342.7 passing yards per game, tops in the conference. After a quiet first half, the Hoosiers’ offense came alive — thanks largely to Sudfeld and a duo of talented running backs. Indiana scored four second-half touchdowns, three of which were on plays of 30 yards or more.

3. Philip Nelson looks to be the answer at quarterback

The Gophers have used both Nelson and redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner at quarterback this season and have rotated between the two in recent weeks. Leidner started against Northwestern and Nebraska, but Nelson eventually replaced him in both games and put up better numbers. Against Indiana, Nelson got the start and played the majority of the game as he put together his best outing of his young career. Nelson finished with a career-high 298 passing yards on 16-of-23 passing, nearly becoming the first Gophers quarterback to top 300 yards since Adam Weber did so in 2010. Nelson also threw for four touchdowns, a career high. Nelson made some big throws when he needed to, including the 50-yard touchdown to Williams late in the game. He also found freshman Donovahn Jones for a 19-yard first completion that kept the chains moving. Nelson left the game momentarily in the second half with an apparent injury but returned to action and led the Gophers on their final scoring drive. There’s little question now that Nelson should be Minnesota’s quarterback from here on out.

4. Like Nelson, David Cobb asserted himself as a starter

Cobb came into the season as Minnesota’s third-string running back but has climbed to No. 1 on the depth chart thanks to an early season injury to Donnell Kirkwood and a turf toe injury that prevented second-string back Rodrick Williams Jr. from making the trip to Bloomington. After rushing for over 100 yards in each of his last two games, Cobb one-upped himself Saturday against Indiana with a career-high 188 rushing yards on 29 carries (an average of 6.5 yards per carry). Cobb had a big run of 53 yards in the first quarter that help set up an early touchdown. The junior from Killeen, Texas., later scored from 27 yards out to put Minnesota up 35-13 early in the third quarter. It marked the first time since Minnesota’s win against San Jose State that a Gophers running back rushed for a touchdown. Cobb helped Minnesota chew up the clock in the second half as the Gophers clung to a lead, gaining a handful of first downs in the process. Cobb was physical and didn’t shy away from contact, but also had a number of runs set up nicely by Minnesota’s offensive line. The Gophers rushed for 248 total yards as a team, but it was Cobb once again carrying the load on the ground.

5. The Gophers’ program has turned a corner

In recent years — likely even last year — this was the type of game that the Gophers would lose. Minnesota started to yield points to Indiana but never truly panicked, even when the Hoosiers scored to take the lead with 5:33 remaining in the game. The Gophers’ players seem to have a newfound confidence that has emerged in the past few victories. Beating Northwestern — which is now 0-5 in the Big Ten — on the road looked to be a decent win, and last Saturday’s win against No. 24 Nebraska was a big one for a Minnesota program that hadn’t beaten the Huskers since 1960. But the win against Indiana, a team with perhaps as high-octane an offense as the Gophers will face all year, was yet another sign of this team’s growth and its resiliency. Minnesota made the plays it needed to at key moments in order to pull off the win. Bad teams would likely have buckled when faced with that type of collapse. Instead, the Gophers bounced back and never quit. The seven wins are the most for this team in five years, and the three Big Ten wins are the most since 2009. Head coach Jerry Kill and his staff have once again improved their team’s record every year during their first three seasons of a rebuilding project. It happened at Southern Illinois and Northern Illinois. Now it’s happening at Minnesota.

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