After taking a back seat to Mitch Leidner for a while, Philip Nelson has re-emerged as the Gophers primary quarterback.
The Gophers remain proud of their two-quarterback system, and coach Jerry Kill is quick to say, “We need them both.” But Nelson has handled most of the time as the Gophers have reeled off three consecutive victories over Northwestern, Nebraska and Indiana.
Leidner had started three consecutive games before Nelson got the nod Saturday at Indiana. Nelson responded by passing for a career-high 298 yards and four touchdowns.
After leaving the game because of a hip pointer, Nelson returned to complete a 50-yard pass to Maxx Williams for the winning touchdown. The hip pointer remains an issue, but Nelson practiced Tuesday and is expected to play in Saturday’s home game against Penn State.
“It’s just a little painful, but the good thing with hips is they can’t get much worse,” Nelson said. “And the only way you can make them better is by continuing to keep moving them, so that’s where I’m at right now.”
For the past three weeks, the Gophers have gone into each game planning to start one quarterback and bring the backup in for at least one series in the first half.
Leidner started at Northwestern, and after four first-quarter punts, the Gophers turned to Nelson and never looked back, as he steered them to a 20-17 victory. Leidner started against Nebraska but, after three drives that included a touchdown, the Gophers let Nelson handle the rest, as they rolled to a 34-23 victory.
Kill said the decision on when to switch quarterbacks has come down to “feel,” and he credits quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski for keeping both of them ready.
At Indiana, Nelson completed three passes for 71 yards on the opening touchdown drive. But the Gophers offense stalled on its next four drives. So in came Leidner, who ignited the running game, and led the team on a 76-yard touchdown drive.
Leidner fumbled twice on Minnesota’s next possession and got the wind knocked out of him. Nelson replaced him and helped the Gophers build a 35-13 lead. Leidner filled in while Nelson was in the locker room, getting a pain injection for his hip, but Nelson finished the game.
“Philip is playing at a really high level,” Kill said.
Nelson hasn’t fumbled or thrown an interception since Sept. 28, the day the Gophers stuck with him throughout their 23-7 loss to Iowa. Over the past three games, all victories, Nelson has passed for six touchdowns and rushed for two more.
In Big Ten games, Nelson ranks third in the conference in passer efficiency rating at 165.3, behind Ohio State’s Braxton Miller (178.4) and Michigan’s Devin Gardner (174.8). This statistic factors in completion percentage, passing yardage, touchdowns and interceptions.
Nelson’s performance against Indiana earned him Big Ten Offensive Co-Player of the Week honors with Penn State running back Bill Belton.
“It’s a great award, and it’s a humbling experience all at the same time,” Nelson said. “I look around, and the whole offense played really well. And when everyone else around you is playing well, it makes everything go along a lot easier.”
• Derrick Engel, who leads the Gophers in receptions (22), receiving yards (361) and receiving touchdowns (five), is questionable for Saturday’s game because of a sprained ankle, Kill said.
• Kill plans to coach from the press box again Saturday, he said, with defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys remaining on the sideline as acting head coach.
• ESPN’s Samantha Ponder, the wife of Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder, interviewed Kill and Claeys for a segment that will run Saturday on “College GameDay”.