The Gophers student section was loud and alive during the first quarter Saturday, with chants of “Who hates Iowa? We hate Iowa!”
With an announced sellout crowd of 51,382 on hand at TCF Bank Stadium, the Gophers had a chance to prove their undefeated nonconference start had prepared them for Big Ten play. Once again, Iowa had other ideas.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill reinserted Philip Nelson as his starting quarterback, leaving backup Mitch Leidner on the bench, as the offense sputtered badly in a 23-7 defeat.
Iowa built a 17-0 first-half lead, hushing the crowd, and held on to claim the Floyd of Rosedale Trophy for a second consecutive year.
Coming back from a hamstring injury, Nelson threw two interceptions, took four sacks and missed some other key throws. But the bigger issue for the Gophers was their inability to run the ball. They finished with 27 carries for 30 yards, after averaging 282 yards rushing in their first four games.
“They won the line of scrimmage battle, and that’s where the games are usually won and lost,” Kill said.
It felt like a repeat of last year’s nightmare in Iowa City. The Gophers were 4-0 heading into that one, too, and wound up falling behind 24-0 by halftime of an eventual 31-13 loss.
“Any time you lose, especially on homecoming, to Iowa, it hurts,” Gophers receiver Derrick Engel said.
Kill’s decision to start Nelson was surprising because the sophomore’s status was iffy all week, coming back from an injury he’d suffered against Western Illinois on Sept. 14. Leidner had rushed for 151 yards and four touchdowns last week against San Jose State, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.
Kill said he left the final decision up to Nelson. They talked Friday night and again Saturday before Nelson was officially pegged as the starter.
“I think he trusts a lot of our players,” Nelson said. “He said it a million times, that I’m the only one who knows how I feel, so he just kind of left it up to me.”
Nelson completed 12 of 24 passes for 135 yards, but the wheels he showed in rushing for 122 yards against New Mexico State just weren’t there. He rushed nine times for minus-18 yards, with the negative yardage coming on sacks.
Asked if the hamstring affected him, he said: “Not really. Obviously I was just a little cautious at first, but once you get into the heat of the game, you just kind of forget about it.”
Kill hinted in his halftime radio interview that the Gophers might consider inserting Leidner for the second half, but they stuck with Nelson.
“If we’d have been in a situation where Philip was using his legs a lot having to run, you know, yes, we’d have played Mitch,” Kill said. “But we never got in that situation. We couldn’t run the ball. We had to throw the ball and do those type of things.”
Iowa (4-1, 1-0 Big Ten) continued the success it had during nonconference play.
Mark Weisman rushed 24 times for 147 yards for Iowa, and Hawkeyes quarterback Jake Rudock completed 15 of 25 passes for 218 yards. Iowa’s first-half touchdowns came on a 4-yard run by Rudock and a 76-yard pass from Rudock to Damond Powell.
Mike Meyers, who kicked three field goals for Iowa, hit a 23-yarder with 5:10 remaining in the third quarter to give Iowa a 20-0 lead. At that point, the Gophers finally got a spark when Marcus Jones took a kickoff from deep in his end zone and returned it 66 yards.
Four plays later, Nelson hit Engel with a 23-yard touchdown pass.
The Hawkeyes marched right back down the field and looked poise to score again, but Gophers safety Brock Vereen came up with a big interception in the end zone.
But the Gophers couldn’t make the momentum last, as Nelson took another big sack on the next possession.
By game’s end, the student section had cleared and Iowa fans could be heard chanting, “Let’s go Hawks!”
The Gophers (4-1, 0-1) play at 4-0 Michigan next week.
Asked if Nelson would still be the starting quarterback moving forward, Kill said; “It’s the same thing we’ve been doing. He was our guy at the start [of the season], and Mitch played and came in and did a good job, and we’ll keep working with those two kids.”
“And next week, they may both play in certain situations.”