Maybe it was only coincidence, but when Gophers coach Jerry Kill met with the media last Friday, he had one of quarterback Philip Nelson’s best plays from the previous night’s 51-23 victory over UNLV playing on his office television.
Using his clicker to pause and rewind, Kill broke down Nelson’s 48-yard, second-quarter touchdown run, showing how well the sophomore executed the zone read. Instead of handing off to tailback Donnell Kirkwood, Nelson read the outside linebacker and kept the ball, racing untouched for a touchdown.
By Tuesday, Nelson had seen that play again — along with the rest of the film — with his focus now on Saturday’s game at New Mexico State.
“We saw a lot of mistakes that could have been fixed,” Nelson said. “And it’s a good thing to sit there and say, as a team, we put up 51 points, but we could have put up even more.”
Nelson rushed 12 times for a career-high 83 yards, adding a 5-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter. UNLV challenged Nelson to run by using a Cover-1 defensive scheme, which had the secondary playing man-to-man with the safety assigned to pass coverage.
“They want to play Cover-1, there’s one thing they can’t defend and that’s the quarterback run, and they paid the price for it,” Kill said. “We probably should have done that a lot more, but we wanted to take the hits off Philip.”
Nelson had 12 or more carries in four of his seven starts last year, including his debut at Wisconsin, where he rushed 16 times for 67 yards.
“I think a lot of people forget how well he runs,” Kill said noting that Nelson can run the 40-yard dash in about 4.5 or 4.6 seconds.
Nelson was less effective through the air, completing only 10 of 22 passes for 99 yards and a touchdown with an interception. Senior receiver Derrick Engel was targeted six times but didn’t have a reception. Wide receiver has become a glaring concern for the Gophers, and Kill said it’s imperative they get freshmen Donovahn Jones, Drew Wolitarsky and Eric Carter ready to be contributors.
Nelson had a costly fumble on the team’s second drive. With the ball at the UNLV 1-yard line, he bumped into his fullback, dropped the ball and recovered at the 8-yard line, turning an almost sure touchdown into a field goal.
“He felt terrible about that,” Gophers quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski said. “A kid like [Nelson] or [backup quarterback Mitch Leidner], I can’t be any harder than they already are on themselves. They feel worse than anybody does about it.
“Hey, you live and learn. We kept the ball, thank goodness, but to be a great offense, you can’t have that happen anywhere in the red zone.”
Nelson also came close to having an interception returned for a touchdown in the second quarter, but UNLV defensive back Sidney Hodge dropped the ball.
So it had been far from a perfect beginning when the Gophers got the ball at UNLV’s 39-yard line with 1:45 remaining in the first half. Minnesota, which entered the game as 14-point favorites, trailed 13-10, and needed a score.
On fourth-and-8, Nelson hit Isaac Fruechte for a 9-yard pass to keep the drive alive. Later, after Nelson had two rushes for 15 yards, the Gophers faced third-and-goal from the 10-yard line. That time, Nelson scrambled to his right and found tight end Maxx Williams, who made a nice touchdown catch, keeping himself inbounds.
“That’s the way the quarterback needs to play,” Nelson said. “You can’t dwell on earlier mistakes. And we knew it was the first game; we were trying to get some jitters out. As soon as we started rolling, I thought it went really well.”
The Gophers hope Nelson can keep it rolling at New Mexico State.