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.
Email Joe to talk about the Gophers.
Gopher fans are getting their first look at their new quarterback Saturday. They have to like what they see.
Philip Nelson threw three touchdown passes in the first 20 minutes of his first home game for the Gophers, and Minnesota holds a lead in a Big Ten game for the first time this season, 34-7 over Purdue at halftime.
Nelson completed 11 of his first 12 passes, three of them touchdown passes of 34 yards or longer, and the Gophers scored 31 consecutive points to shock the 3-4 Boilermakers, who had won 11 of the teams' last 14 meetings.
Purdue went 46 yards for a touchdown on its first possession, including a 40-yard running play by tailback Akeem Shavers that gave the game an air of here-we-go-again, considering how many rushing yards the Gophers have allowed in Big Ten play.
But Nelson changed all that. He hit Derrick Engel, open in the end zone, with a 34-yard touchdown strike to tie the game, then found MarQueis Gray inside the 5 for a 33-yard gain. That set up a 4-yard touchdown by Rodrick Williams on a punishing run up the middle, putting Minnesota in front of a Big Ten game for the first time all year.
Nelson wasn't done, however. He found A.J. Barker on the right sideline on the next possession, hitting the receiver in stride as he streaked to the end zone for a 38-yard score. And Barker, the Gophers' leading receiver on the season, got behind the Purdue secondary on the next drive and waited for a Nelson bomb, a 63-yard scoring play.
Minnesota, which had not scored more than 13 points in a game since Sept. 15, added field goals of 40 and 35 yards By Jordan Wettstein shortly before halftime, taking a 24-point lead -- their largest halftime lead since the Illinois game last season -- into the locker room.
For the half, Nelson, a 19-year-old freshman from Mankato West High, has 246 yards on 15-of-17 passing. Barker has caught five passes for 135 yards. Purdue, on the other hand, has 112 yards total, just 49 of them through the air.
It's still a half-hour before kickoff, and already the Gophers should be upbeat about their bowl chances. If they can't win two weeks from now in Champaign, where Indiana is embarrassing the Illini at the moment, they don't deserve a postseason game.
But getting there may depend upon winning today, since bowl eligibility requires six wins, and the 4-3 Gophers are warming up now in hopes of doing so. Of course, Purdue, at 3-4 but with an easier schedule ahead, is just as desperate for a win. The Gophers are in their all-maroon uniforms, same look they wore in beating Syracuse last month, except for the pink towels several players have attached to their pants. Purdue is in black pants and white jerseys.
The tailgate lots outside, and the Oak Street pregame carnival, all seem more full than the past few games, a side effect of the later kickoff. It's chilly but sunny, about 45 degrees, and I'll be interested in seeing how full the stadium gets. It's a nice day for football, but a pair of 0-3 teams might not be enough to convince all the ticket-holders to turn out.
MADISON, Wis. -- The Gophers aren't bringing Paul Bunyan's Axe home with them, not with that gaping hole in their run defense. But after Saturday's game, they have to feel better about their chances of capturing it over the next three years.
That's because Philip Nelson mostly lived up to his billing as the Gophers' quarterback of the future, showing poise and skill in his first college action, despite Minnesota's 38-13 loss to Wisconsin in Camp Randall Stadium. The 19-year-old freshman threw a pair of touchdown passes, but also a pair of interceptions in a debut that was at once intriguing and frustrating.
The frustrating part was due to the defense, which for the third straight week, was bludgeoned by a Big Ten running attack. Badger tailback James White scored three touchdowns and Montee Ball two, and both eclipsed 150 yards as Wisconsin pulled away in the second half. It's the ninth straight year that the Badgers have won the Battle of the Axe, equaling the longest winning streak ever in the 122-game series. Minnesota won nine straight games in college football's most-played rivalry from 1933-41.
MarQueis Gray was healthy enough to play the entire game at wide receiver, and he caught two passes for 13 yards. But his ankle injury, and a lingering injury to backup Max Shortell, opened the opportunity for Nelson, the state's Mr. Football last fall at Mankato West High.
Despite playing behind an offensive line that was missing tackle Ed Olson and guard Tommy Olson, Nelson grew more comfortable as the game wore on, and had Minnesota within 14-6 at halftime and 24-13 in the fourth quarter.
White had touchdown runs of 14, 34 and 48 yards, while Ball had scoring romps of 14 and 44 yards.
MADISON, Wis. -- In the battle of freshmen quarterbacks, Minnesota's defense is keeping the game close.
Philip Nelson has showed poise and skill in his first collegiate action for the Gophers, leading a 65-yard touchdown drive that reached the end zone with a 16-yard pass to Brandon Green. The extra point was no good.
But the Gophers, continually stuck with poor field position, have punted away their other five possessions, and trail 14-6 at halftime in Camp Randall Stadium.
The Badgers, trusting their offense to redshirt freshman Joel Stave, have sputtered, too, punting away four possessions. The Gophers have sacked Stave three times, twice taking Wisconsin out of field-goal range.
For the third straight game, however, Minnesota has allowed an opposing tailback to roll up big yardage in the first half. This week, it's James White, who has 98 yards on just seven carries, including touchdown runs of 8 and 34 yards.
Nelson's debut, meanwhile, has been impressive. The 19-year-old from Mankato has showed poise, patiently waiting to find receivers and several times eluding sacks. He has completed 7 of 14 passes, but connected on 4 of his last 5. Nelson has 89 yards through the air, and another 49 on the ground, on 11 carries. He appeared to lead the Gophers on a scoring drive just before halftime, but Jordan Wettstein's 52-yard field-goal attempt sail just over the right upright and was ruled no good.
Wisconsin senior Montee Ball has just 35 yards on 10 carries at halftime.
The security guard who checked my bag as I entered Camp Randall Stadium this morning told me, "I don't think it's going to be a real big crowd today."
I asked her what that meant. She said, "Some of the students will stay outside and party. I don't think they expect it to be a good game."
Judging by the pregame shows I listened to on the drive to the stadium, that's a widely held view. If this is a rivalry game, I'm not sure all of the fans feel it these days, not with Michigan State coming to Madison next week and Ohio State next month.
The Gophers' main goal today is to recapture Paul Bunyan's Axe after an eight-year absence, of course, but there's a secondary objective, too: Find out if Philip Nelson is ready for Big Ten football. The freshman quarterback has warmed up, alongside Max Shortell, and gets the first action of his career in less than an hour. Win or lose, this is an important day for Gopher football.
As reported yesterday, Ed Olson did not make the trip to Madison, a shame considering he's a junior and won't get to play here again. MarQueis Gray has warmed up, but with the receivers. Devin Crawford-Tufts won't play today, but the other receivers are all in uniform and apparently ready to play.
It's 46 degrees and sunny at Camp Randall.
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