Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson finished last year’s regular season battered and bruised, struggling to produce. One month later, the freshman looked rejuvenated in the bowl game and delivered a performance that boosted his team’s confidence heading into this year.
The Gophers hope the same cycle repeats.
After struggling in the team’s final two regular-season games, Nelson said Wednesday that it took him “about a week” to recover after being shaken up at Michigan State in the regular-season finale.
But the extra time off enabled Nelson to get back to full speed when the team resumed practice for the Dec. 27 Texas Bowl against Syracuse.
“I think we’re doing a good job right now of just getting our feet underneath us again,” Nelson said.
Last year, a Gophers offense that had averaged only 17 points per game in Big Ten play wound up falling just short in a 34-31 loss to heavily favored Texas Tech, as Nelson threw two touchdown passes.
Now, the Gophers are trying to boost an offense that performed better than expected during a four-game winning streak before producing only three points combined in losses to Wisconsin and Michigan State.
Nelson has seen similarities in practice this month, with the offense adding new wrinkles while continuing to work on the things it does well.
“We’ve got a good little balance going right now, and it’s feeling a lot like last year,” Nelson said. “So hopefully it plays out like last year, with how we played.”
During the four-game winning streak, Nelson completed 63 percent of his passes (46 of 73) without an interception and produced 10 touchdowns — seven passing, three rushing.
But against Wisconsin and Michigan State, which boast two of the top six scoring defenses in the nation, Nelson completed only 32 percent of his passes (13 of 41) with two interceptions and no touchdowns.
In both games, the Gophers sustained long drives that sputtered in opposing territory. Three drives into the red zone produced only three points against Michigan State’s vaunted defense.
“I think we kind of lost our way,” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “I think there’s still a little bit of a mentality of ‘We’ve got to be perfect against Wisconsin,’ and ‘We’ve got to be perfect against Michigan State.’ And we didn’t have to be.”
Limegrover has sensed a change in practice this month.
“I think the guys are feeling loose,” he said. “We’ve talked to them about that. We want them feeling good and relaxed, and that will show up in some more big plays.”
• Gophers coach Jerry Kill, who has coached from the press box for the past six games, said he’s not sure whether he will return to the sideline for the bowl game.
“I’m not avoiding your question.” Kill said. “I really can’t comment on any of that right now because I don’t know. I just have to see. And we’ll do what’s best for the program, like we always have, and everybody — I’m doing fine, but it’s one of those things. I talked to Coach [Tracy Claeys] a couple days ago, and we’ll worry about that as we get closer.”
• Asked if he might leave for a head coaching job, Limegrover said: “No, I’m back; I’m having too much fun. I’ve had more fun this year than I have probably in my entire career, coaching the group of guys that we have, working with the offensive staff, so unless you know something I don’t — that they’re going to kick me out — I’d like to be back.”