Gophers QB Nelson's home debut is must-win
MINNEAPOLIS — The University of Minnesota football team returns home Saturday after losing to rival Wisconsin last weekend. The Gophers now host Purdue, and both teams are looking to snap three-game losing streaks. This game could be the turning point of the season for whichever team comes out on top Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. Here are five things to watch as Minnesota and Purdue get set to battle this weekend.
1. How will freshman quarterback Philip Nelson follow up his college debut?
With injuries to starting quarterback MarQueis Gray and sophomore Max Shortell, the Gophers opted to take the redshirt off the true freshman Nelson in last Saturday's game against Wisconsin. The former Mankato West standout was 13-for-24 passing for 149 yards and two touchdowns in his first college game, a 38-13 loss to the Badgers.
Nelson looked poised in his first start and was not overwhelmed by the hostile environment at Camp Randall Stadium in Madison. Now, Nelson returns home for his first start at TCF Bank Stadium.
Nelson was also the Gophers' leading rusher against Wisconsin, carrying the ball 16 times for a team-high 67 yards. Nelson said the ability to run has always been a part of his game, and he was effective when he took off running Saturday. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said the run plays weren't necessarily designed, but Nelson was reacting to what the Badgers' defense gave him.
"In our offense, that's part of the arsenal in the way they react and the way they decided to defend it," Limegrover said. "It gave our quarterback opportunities to make plays. There aren't a lot of those that we just directly call and say, 'OK, the quarterback's going to run the ball here.'"
2. Can the Gophers get their running game back on track after it was non-existent against Wisconsin?
Outside of Nelson's 67 rushing yards, Minnesota wasn't able to move the ball at all on the ground. Part of that was due to the fact that the Gophers were playing from behind, but it's also a product of Minnesota's offensive line lacking inconsistency due to injuries up front.
True freshman Rodrick Williams had the most carries of any running back with six, as he gained 20 yards. Donnell Kirkwood had just five carries for eight yards. K.J. Maye and Derrick Engel each rushed once for a total of 12 yards. Take away Nelson's 67 rushing yards, and the rest of the Gophers picked up just 29 rushing yards (Minnesota had a negative-11 yard "team" rush).
Purdue boasts one of the worst rush defenses in the Big Ten, allowing 192 yards per game on the ground. Only Indiana's 226.3 yards per game allowed is worse. This should be an opportunity for Kirkwood and Co. to grind out some yards and take the pressure off Nelson.
"We certainly want to run the ball. My background in coaching is I like running the ball," Kill said. "But right now there's some things that physically we're still struggling with a little bit. Doesn't mean we can't, but we've got to take a look at how. We'll continue to do that and continue to get better and getting healthy will help that a little bit."
3. Whichever team loses will have a tough path to a bowl game.
After a 4-0 start, the Gophers have lost three straight and are still looking for two more wins to become bowl eligible. Saturday's game -- at home against an opponent with a losing record -- appears to be one of the best chances at another win. After Purdue, Minnesota hosts No. 22 Michigan before going on the road for games against Illinois and Nebraska.
Meanwhile, the Boilermakers are 3-4 entering Saturday's game. Like the Gophers, Purdue has lost three consecutive games to open its Big Ten schedule. The Boilermakers have played close games against a few tough opponents, losing by three at then-No. 22 Notre Dame and falling to Ohio State on the road in overtime last weekend.
With both teams hoping for a bowl berth, you could call this game a must-win for each side.
"We want to get to a bowl game," Nelson said. "We want to win out. We want to treat every game like it's the biggest game there is, so right now the biggest game is Purdue. I think we have a great chance to win that one."
4. Minnesota lost the turnover battle against Wisconsin last week. Can the Gophers reverse the trend against Purdue?
After limiting turnovers in non-conference play, the Gophers have now turned the ball over more times than their opponents. Last Saturday, a pair of Nelson interceptions were the only two turnovers for either team, brining Minnesota's turnover margin to a minus-4 on the year. Wisconsin turned those two Nelson interceptions into 10 points.
Purdue, meanwhile, forced four Ohio State turnovers last weekend -- two fumbles and two interceptions -- while giving the ball away just once. The Boilermakers have one of the best turnover margins in the Big Ten at plus-2.
The Gophers turned the ball over three times against Northwestern two weeks ago without turning over the Wildcats at all. It was a similar story in Minnesota's Big Ten opener against Iowa, when quarterback Max Shortell threw three interceptions and the Gophers also lost a fumble. The Hawkeyes didn't commit a single turnover and took advantage of Minnesota's miscues.
The turnover trend will have to stop Saturday if the Gophers hope to get past Purdue.
5. Can some of the Gophers' other true freshmen help out Nelson on offense?
Nelson was just the latest true freshman to have his redshirt taken off. Recently, Williams and tight end Lincoln Plsek both entered Minnesota's game against Northwestern, officially burning their redshirts. Williams had three carries for 20 yards in that game, while the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Plsek caught his first career pass for nine yards.
Fellow true freshman Andre McDonald began the year as a starter but missed time due to injury. After playing in the season opener against UNLV, McDonald didn't play again until two weeks ago versus Northwestern. He caught four passes in that game and now has six catches for 59 yards.
McDonald and Nelson, who both ranked among the top prep football players in Minnesota, played against each other in an All-American game. Last Saturday, the duo connected for the first of what the Gophers hope to be many more completions.
"Andre's a big, talented kid. You'd figure that he would probably come out and play right away, too," Nelson said. "It was expected for him to be out there right away. I was always waiting for my opportunity. It was pretty cool to be able to throw a couple to him."
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