LINCOLN, NEB. - That must be some nasty ankle injury that A.J. Barker suffered last month. Because Philip Nelson is feeling plenty of pain from it, too.
Barker missed his third game because of an ankle injury so severe that he is still too hobbled to even practice. And the longer the junior walk-on cannot run, the more clear his importance to the Gophers quarterback becomes.
Barker and Nelson seemed to click right away when the freshman took over the signal-calling duties midway through the season, collecting eight receptions, 171 yards and three touchdowns in their first six quarters together. The Gophers offense was as effective as it has been all season, Nelson was being heralded as a teenage savant, and the Gophers were dreaming of upsets to come.
But Barker's last catch, a pretty 63-yard rainbow from Nelson, came with a late bump from a defensive back that traumatized the tendons in the back of his ankle. Though nobody knew it at the time, the season, and Nelson's immediate development, might have been just as injured as that ankle.
"This is definitely a learning experience," Nelson said after throwing for only 59 yards in Saturday's 38-14 loss to Nebraska. "Experiencing what we just went through is definitely going to help down the line."
So would getting Barker back, because Nelson hasn't been the same since. In 3 1/2 games since the DeLaSalle grad went down, Nelson has completed only 30 of 72 passes, thrown for only one touchdown and been intercepted twice (both Saturday). Certainly, facing defenses such as Michigan's and Nebraska's in that time has an effect, too, but Nelson's passing yardage numbers are stark: In six quarters with Barker: 395 yards. In 3 1/2 games without him: 279.
Saturday's game was the worst, though as coach Jerry Kill was quick to point out, Nelson was hardly the reason the Gophers lost. Passes were dropped, the running game was a nonstarter and the Huskers defensive line controlled the game.
"I don't think it has a lot to do with the quarterback," Kill said. "We got beat at the line of scrimmage. Period."
Both of Nelson's interceptions came on passes that went in and out of his receivers' hands; one that was snatched away when Andre McDonald juggled it, the other when Devin Crawford-Tufts couldn't hang on to a sideline pass. McDonald appeared irate with himself on the sidelines, and Nelson went over to console him.
"Andre is a very competitive type of guy. He's going to feel like it was on him, but it was on both of us," Nelson said. "I've got to be able to put it out in front of him better, not behind him, and he's got to make a play. It's both our fault."