Joe Christensen covered Major League Baseball for 15 years, including three seasons at the Baltimore Sun and eight at the Star Tribune, before switching to the college football beat. He’s a Faribault, Minn., native who graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1996. He covered Jim Wacker’s Gophers for the Minnesota Daily and also wrote about USC, UCLA and the Rose Bowl for the Riverside Press-Enterprise before getting this chance to cover football again.
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Philip Nelson impressed plenty of observers on Saturday. But maybe the most impressive thing about his day was how unimpressed he was.
Three touchdown passes? Ho hum. Zero interceptions? A blowout victory? Nelson seemed to be thinking more about what was for dinner.
"More than anything, I'm surprised he's like this all the time," said coach Jerry Kill, holding his hand level in front of him to demonstrate Nelson's steady demeanor. "At Wisconsin, when things didn't go right, (when he) threw two interceptions last week, he didn't come over and take his strap down. He stayed even keel."
It's a reflection of his background and his comfort level with the Gophers' offense, Kill said. "When I was 18 or 19, I probably wouldn't do that very well. He's mature," Kill said. "The high school he came from (Mankato West), the system they ran, I think it has a lot to do with it. I'm not going to tell you we take all the credit. He's been raised in a football family."
Nelson completed four passes of more than 30 yards in the first half alone, three of them for touchdowns and another that set up a score. It was a startling departure for Nelson, after a debut in which the Badgers' defense didn't give him many opportunities to throw deep.
The freshman quarterback's arm strength for a deep pass is "pretty darn good," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "I wish he had been able to cut a couple loose (at Wisconsin), but he did a good job of saying, 'I don't have it, so I don't want to push it.' As he gets more comfortable, we'll hit a couple."
That requires a defense that isn't keeping a safety deep at all times, a strategy that cedes some short passes but discourages big plays. That's what Wisconsin did, and Nelson recognized it. Purdue, however, gambled a little more, and Nelson pounced on his chances.
"Whatever the defense is giving us," Nelson said of his game plan. "Wisconsin wanted to eliminate deep plays. We tried taking a shot on a reverse-pass, but they played it well. So you have to chip your way down the field."
He didn't hold back nearly as much Saturday against Purdue. Nelson hit a wide-open Derrick Engel with a 34-yard pass for a touchdown on the Gophers' second possession, then looped a perfect spiral into MarQueis Gray's hands at the 4-yard line on the next possession, a 33-yard gain. The next drive moved 60 yards in 3 plays, including a 38-yard touchdown pass on the right sideline that Engel caught in stride.
And Nelson executed the longest pass play of the season on the next drive, hitting A.J. Barker on a bomb down the middle of the field, a play so open that Barker had to wait on the ball to arrive.
Limegrover said this week that he was impressed with Nelson's patience.
"Don't get greedy, don't try to do too much -- that's what gets young quarterbacks in trouble," the coach said. "We called a few deep balls, but he didn't have them, so he didn't cut loose. That shows a maturity from him. Sometimes, young guys go, 'I'll just try to let the receiver figure it out.' He doesn't."
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