LAS CRUCES, N.M. – Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson took a hit to his throwing shoulder midway through the third quarter Saturday night, right in a spot between his pads.
With the arm dangling from his side, Nelson did a few windmills and kept going. The injury happened on his 12th carry of the game, but he kept running and throwing, refusing to leave the game.
It was that kind of night for the Gophers, as they overcame injuries and the desert heat, grinding out a 44-21 victory over New Mexico State before an announced crowd of 16,418 at Aggie Memorial Stadium.
The Gophers, who defeated Nevada Las Vegas 51-23 in their opener, are halfway to matching last year’s 4-0 nonconference start, but the victories haven’t been as easy as the scores make them look.
The Gophers lost cornerback Briean-Boddy Calhoun to a left knee injury on the third play of the game. Senior linebacker Aaron Hill hobbled off the field after being kicked in the leg at one point, but in the fourth quarter he picked up a fumble and raced for a 50-yard touchdown.
At halftime, tight end Maxx Williams and fullback Mike Henry had intravenous fluids pumped into them. It had been 87 degrees at kickoff and stayed in the mid-80s through the end of the game.
Marcus Jones, who had a 98-yard kickoff return touchdown against UNLV, got drilled after signaling for a fair catch in the first quarter. Then, with 1 minute, 22 seconds remaining in the first half, he bobbled a punt but kept his composure. He gathered the ball, found a hole a raced 65 yards for a touchdown.
“These kids have had a good attitude,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “We’re from Minnesota so we’re not used to the heat. We had this heat last week [in Minnesota against UNLV], and then we get it again, so the kids held up.”
With starting tailback Donnell Kirkwood back in Minnesota because of a sprained ankle, sophomore Rodrick Williams stepped in and rushed 16 times for a career-high 148 yards and a touchdown. Kicker Chris Hawthorne went 3-for-3 on field goal attempts from 45, 22 and 27 yards and made all five of his extra-point attempts.
Nelson finished with 15 carries for a career-high 122 rushing yards and a touchdown. He also completed eight of 15 passes for 127 yards, with one interception.
“There’s a spot on my shoulder pads where there’s a little open spot, and I think I took one right in the open spot there,” Nelson said. “It was just a stinger. But after I warmed it up, got a little medicine in me, I was fine.”
Kill thought the “critical moment of the game” came with the Gophers leading 30-14 early in the fourth quarter.
Nelson had gone to the sidelines and been checked by a trainer and a team doctor. He grimaced when he tried lifting his right arm above his head. But he made a few throws and waved everyone off.
The defense stopped New Mexico State on fourth down at the 10-yard line, and then Nelson took over. He had a 20-yard run, then completed a 17-yard pass over the middle for Maxx Williams.
Two plays later, Nelson had a 28-yard run, and he capped the 90-yard drive with a 1-yard leap into the end zone.
“Philip’s a tough kid,” Kill said. “He really played well tonight. We had two or three dropped balls that should have been caught, and then the one he got picked. He’ll learn from that.”
The Gophers finished with 342 rushing yards and held the Aggies to 103 yards on the ground.
New Mexico State fell to 0-2 after getting drilled 56-7 at Texas in its season opener.
After one quarter, the Gophers led 3-0. By halftime, that lead had been stretched to 27-7. Minnesota’s defense forced punts on New Mexico State’s first five possessions, holding the Aggies to one first down in that stretch.
With Kirkwood unable to play, the Gophers knew they would need big production from Rodrick Williams and David Cobb. Williams recovered his own fumble for a second-quarter touchdown, and Cobb finished with nine carries for 56 yards and a touchdown.
Asked if Williams could give Kirkwood a push for the starting tailback job, Kill could only smile.
“I just want to enjoy the win,” he said. “We’ll need them all. Just like the secondary. We had Derrick Wells out, and then Briean. A lot of teams don’t survive those things.”