MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers have juggled their quarterbacks all season, rarely sticking with one guy for more than a few games at a time. They did not name a starter for Saturday’s game against Nebraska and fully expected to use two quarterbacks.
That was indeed the case as redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner took the field as the starter — in name only — before giving way to sophomore Philip Nelson in the second quarter. After four series with Leidner under center, Minnesota made the switch and put Nelson in. On his first possession, Nelson helped lead the Gophers down the field for their second touchdown of the first half.
Minnesota had the ball on the Nebraska 34-yard line and faced a fourth-and-11. Too close to punt but too far for a field goal, the Gophers went for it on fourth down. Nelson connected with wide receiver Derrick Engel for a 33-yard score to give Minnesota its first lead of the game — and first lead against Nebraska since 1969.
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“We were in that goofy area and coach said, ‘Hey, we didn’t come here to lay up,'” said Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover. “We didn’t come to be passive in that situation, so we said, ‘Hey, we feel like we’ve got something that would be pretty good. Let’s roll with it and we’ll see what happens.’ Obviously something kind of good happened.”
Engel has become a favorite target of Nelson — they connected for a 29-yard touchdown in last weekend’s win against Northwestern — and the duo teamed up again for another score Saturday. The 33-yard strike was the longest pass for Nelson all day, and it came at a pretty big time.
Had Minnesota failed to convert on fourth down, Nebraska would have gotten the ball back with a chance to add to its lead. Instead, the touchdown gave Nelson and the Gophers plenty confidence and helped shift the momentum in their favor.
“We’re starting to believe, and that’s really all that needs to be said right now,” Nelson said. “We have the confidence rolling from week to week and we’re finally starting to realize how good we really can be.”
Saturday marked the second weekend in a row in which Nelson received the bulk of the snaps at quarterback despite coming off the bench. Against Northwestern, he went 8-for-11 for 112 yards and a touchdown to help the Gophers beat the Wildcats on the road. Nelson’s receivers had a handful of drops Saturday against Nebraska, but he still finished 7-for-15 for a season-high 152 yards and a touchdown.
Nelson also used his legs to help the Gophers’ offense move down the field, gaining 55 yards on eight carries. He scored twice on the ground on a pair of one-yard runs. Despite Nelson having the stronger outing Saturday, there’s a chance Minnesota could once again use both quarterbacks next weekend at Indiana.
“At this point, it’s just kind of a feel thing. I think different opponents will dictate a little bit who that guy is and who that starter’s going to be,” Limegrover said. “Coach Kill talks with the guys, both the quarterbacks. He said, ‘The thing you can’t worry about is that we’re not going to have a starter each and every week that’s going to be one guy and is clearly head and shoulders above the other. You’re both going to play. You both need to approach it that way.’
“The guy who takes the first snap is merely taking the first snap, and that’s how we talk to those guys about it. I think they both understand. The greatest thing about those two kids is there’s no ego there. Neither one of them says, ‘I need to be the starter,’ or, ‘I deserve to be the starter.'”
Martinez can’t shake off rust vs. Gophers: Minnesota was preparing all week as if Huskers quarterback Taylor Martinez would play, even though the senior missed Nebraska’s last three games with a toe injury. Sure enough, Martinez took the field Saturday and looked his old self on his team’s first scoring drive.
After the Huskers scored a touchdown in the opening minutes, Martinez never looked quite the same. He was misfiring on passes and struggled to hit open receivers. He finished the game just 16-for-30 for 139 yards and was intercepted late in the fourth quarter with the game already out of reach.
Martinez, typically a threat to run, too, was also limited on the ground. The Gophers held him to just 16 rushing yards on eight carries as his return to the field proved to be a non-factor.
“I think you see on some of the throws that weren’t quite where they normally would be,” said acting head coach Tracy Claeys said. “He’s got some work to do to get back to where he was. I give the kid a hell of a lot of credit because I didn’t know if he’d play the whole game, and he did. He stuck it out.”
Hageman plays angry: Minnesota defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman is doing what he can to raise his NFL Draft stock. On Saturday, that was a bad thing for Nebraska.
Hageman, a 6-foot-6, 311-pound senior, sacked Martinez in the second quarter but was whistled for a facemask penalty. That just added fuel to Hageman’s fire, as he sacked Martinez again on the very next play for an eight-yard loss.
“I definitely hold myself accountable for not making a lot of the plays,” Hageman said. “But just the fact that I’ve been improving, watching film from last week and watching Nebraska. … With the coaches critiquing my game, I feel like I’ve definitely seen improvement in myself.”
Minnesota sacked Martinez four times on Saturday, including 1.5 sacks by Theiren Cockran, who now has 5.5 on the year. Hageman’s sack in Saturday’s win was his second of the year.
Hageman was called for another facemask penalty later in the game on an incomplete pass on third down. That helped the Huskers move the chains and keep alive a drive that eventually yielded three points. But after his sack and two tackles for a loss in Saturday’s win, Hageman was able to overcome those two costly penalties.
“I’m not going to worry about the facemask (penalties) because they were effort plays,” Claeys said. “I’ll tell you, everyone wants to point out what he doesn’t do well. He gets better and better every week. I’ll put him up against any D-lineman in the Big Ten. If they had a draft for D-linemen, I’m telling you, I would not want to play against Ra’Shede.”
Goodger gets involved: Gophers tight end Drew Goodger didn’t see many passes come his way in the Gophers’ first seven games of the year. He entered Saturday’s game with just three catches on the season for 33 yards.
Goodger equalled those numbers — and then some — as he led Minnesota in receiving during Saturday’s win. The junior from Shawnee Mission, Kan., caught three passes for 68 yards, all in the second half.
“Our coaches really did a good job of scheming them up. They knew that I could get lost out there in the flat a couple times,” Goodger said. “They made really good play calls at the right time.”
Nelson found a wide-open Goodger in the middle of the field for a 21-yard completion on a third-quarter scoring drive. The two later connected for a 16-yard pass as Nelson threw across the field to hit his tight end. Goodger’s third and final catch went for 31 yards as Nebraska once again failed to cover the 6-foot-5, 265-pound tight end.
“That wasn’t really expected, to be honest with you,” Nelson said. “There’s a couple plays where we were using Maxx (Williams) as a go-to guy and (Goodger) popped open. Whoever may be open is going to get the ball. That’s just the way that we operate as an offense.”