The Gophers freshman quarterback, in only his second college start, was nearly flawless in throwing three first-half TD passes.
The magician revealed his secret on Saturday. Jerry Kill has transformed four previous football programs into winners, and after watching Minnesota, his most difficult assignment yet, score on seven consecutive possessions and pile up 44 consecutive points, the coach gave away his methods.
"When you're building programs," Kill said as he savored the Gophers' stunning 44-28 rout of Purdue, "a lot of it has to do with quarterbacks."
So now we know what was up his sleeve: Philip Nelson.
The true freshman quarterback put on a magic show of his own in his TCF Bank Stadium debut Saturday, showing a deft touch on the ball and an amazing ability to read the defense. With the 19-year-old Mankato West grad confidently directing four touchdown drives in the first 20 minutes alone, the Gophers -- who hadn't scored more than 13 points in three previous Big Ten games -- ended their three-game losing streak and moved within one victory of their first bowl berth since 2009.
"When we recruited Philip, we knew what we were getting," Kill said. "Am I surprised? No."
The Boilermakers certainly were. Like the Gophers, they were 0-3 in the conference entering the game, but an overtime loss to Ohio State last week made them believe they were better than their record. They game-planned for the Gophers' teenage freshman, trying to put pressure on his protection while allowing their cornerbacks to play tight and try to pick off his throws.
Bad idea. Really bad idea.
"We noticed that their corners would bite on some short-game stuff" in hopes of coming up with interceptions, Nelson said. "So we put in some double routes. We caught them jumping [routes] early, and [they] kept jumping, so we kept going to it."
The result? Four huge gains longer than any pass Nelson completed in his collegiate debut last week in Wisconsin. He completed 11 of his first 12 passes and finished 15-for-22 for 246 yards, three first-half touchdowns and no interceptions.
"I just came out and played like I always do," said Nelson, seemingly the calmest Gopher in the building. "Once you start playing, it's just like any other game. The throwing motion is the same, the guys on your team are a little faster. But we executed."
That they did, at least for a half, maybe better than any passing game the Gophers have displayed in a couple of years.
After Purdue took a 7-0 lead on its first possession, Nelson hit Derrick Engel, open in the end zone, with a 34-yard touchdown strike to tie the score, then found MarQueis Gray, who made a diving catch inside the Purdue 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 in a Big Ten game for the first time all season.
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 this season, got behind the Purdue secondary on the next drive and waited for a Nelson bomb, a 63-yard scoring play.
"Very impressive. He's got an extremely quick release, and he's very decisive back there," said Barker, who had five catches for 135 yards and two TDs before rolling his ankle, an injury he hopes won't keep him off the field next Saturday against Michigan. "You have to be able to read the coverages and make the right decisions. He's done a great job."
Running back Donnell Kirkwood supplied much of the Gophers' second-half offense, rushing for 90 of his game-high 134 yards, but the Boilermakers mostly regretted their earlier gambling pass coverage against Nelson.
"We bit on some double-breaking moves. We bit on the slant-and-go," said embattled Purdue coach Danny Hope. "We bit on a post-corner and they made a huge play out of it. Next thing you know, we were far behind."
Being far ahead is a first for the Gophers, at least in Big Ten play. But it was a day of firsts: first turnover recovered in a Big Ten game, first lead in the conference season, first defensive touchdown of the year on Michael Carter's 43-yard interception return. But most important: first victory of Nelson's career.
That's the cornerstone, at least, of a winner.
"A true freshman, in his second start -- he didn't turn over the football, he threw catchable balls, he moved the chains and scored," Kill said. "... We've been waiting to see some of this happen."
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