Jerry Kill didn't have any idea at 9:30 p.m. last Friday night, before last week's loss at Wisconsin, that Philip Nelson would play the big part in rewarding the Gophers athletic department with a football victory Saturday that was not only badly needed, but also should stop some of the criticism recently directed at the department.
But the Gophers coach made that big call two weeks ago to not continue to try redshirting Nelson and give the true freshman quarterback a chance to play.
As I looked into the Gophers locker room following the 44-28 upset victory over Purdue, big smiles were on the faces of university president Eric Kaler and athletic director Norwood Teague, who were in dire need of something good happening after taking heat for spending $800,000 to cancel a home-and-home football series against North Carolina and assistant basketball coach Saul Smith's recent drunken-driving arrest.
Let's face the facts, after Purdue extended Ohio State into overtime before losing 29-22 last Saturday, not many college football fans and analysts gave the Gophers a chance to beat the Boilermakers.
But they not only beat them; they did it decisively offensively, defensively and every other way, leading at one time 44-7 with 11:20 left in the third quarter.
And furthermore, the Gophers did it with only one offensive lineman who had started the first four games. Nelson wasn't sacked once. Now the Gophers need only one victory in their final four games to qualify for a bowl game, entitling them to an extra 15 days of practice to make this young team more competitive next season.
Nelson, a freshman from Mankato West, was asked how the team's approach differed from the 38-13 loss at Wisconsin.
"Wisconsin was a completely different team and didn't want to give up any deep balls," Nelson said. "Purdue, on the other hand, really wanted to jump on stuff and make big plays on defense, which they're definitely capable of. We saw the film how they had a couple of pick sixes throughout the year, and we figured if we could get them on a couple double moves that they'd back off, but that was their whole defensive game plan. That definitely benefited us the rest of the game."
Nelson was asked, after he saw how competitive Purdue was against Ohio State, if he thought the Gophers could beat the Boilermakers.
"We think we have a chance in every single game," he said. "Purdue [played] with Ohio State ... and they should have won that game. That's why the Big Ten is so funny. You have Purdue who just about beat Ohio State and we come out and have a great day against Purdue. It's funny how things work out, and that's why every single game can be a different outcome and you can never expect anything."
Nelson had fantastic first-half passing statistics, completing 15 of 17 passes for 246 yards and three touchdowns. He finished 15-for-22 after the Gophers focused more on the running game in the second half.
Coaches found weakness
Credit the Gophers coaches for finding a weakness in the Purdue pass defense.
"Throughout our preparation, we noticed that their corners were playing some short-game stuff so we definitely put in some double routes," Nelson said.
"We caught them jumping early and they kept jumping, so we kept going to it."
The plan was to redshirt Nelson so he would have four years of competition after this year, but injuries to quarterbacks MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell changed Kill's mind. But Nelson said he never changed his mindset about preparing to play.
"You know, just to make sure that my opportunity wouldn't embarrass me," he said.
Nelson spread credit for the victory to his teammates.
"The quarterback [makes] the offense go, and along with the line and the receivers," he said. "It's a team game, and everybody did their job today and that makes me look good, but all credit to them. The offensive line did a tremendous job again. The receivers executed their routes perfectly."
Barker a superstar
Going into Saturday's game, A.J. Barker, who is rapidly gaining a reputation as one of the best receivers ever to play for the Gophers, in seven games had caught 25 passes for 442 yards and five touchdowns.
Against Purdue, the redshirt junior walk-on from DeLaSalle caught five passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns, including one for 63 yards.
"A.J. is a great receiver. He's very smart," Nelson said. "He does a lot of things to gain separation early. I've never seen a receiver be able to gain that much separation from a defender like [he does]."
And let's not forget the defense, with a great 43-yard interception return for a touchdown by senior Michael Carter in the third quarter that clinched the game.
• One reason Gophers basketball coach Tubby Smith wasn't tougher on Trevor Mbakwe following his personal and legal problems was that Mbakwe could have turned pro and been drafted but he chose to come back for a sixth year and Smith felt obligated to him. As far as the recent arrest for drunken driving of his son and assistant coach, Saul, Tubby let athletic director Norwood Teague handle that.
• The Gophers football team will get a boost to ticket sales next year, playing Iowa, Nebraska and Wisconsin at TCF Bank Stadium.
• There are only nine seniors playing for the Gophers football team -- linebackers Mike Rallis and Keanon Cooper, defensive end D.L. Wilhite, defensive backs Michael Carter and Troy Stoudermire, tight end John Rabe, quarterback MarQueis Gray, kicker Jordan Wettstein and wide receiver Brandon Green. Gray and Green have missed significant time because of injuries.
• Eric Decker, who is having a great season playing alongside Peyton Manning in Denver, is ranked in the top 10 in the AFC in a number of receiving categories: ninth in yards (441), tied for eighth in receptions (34) and tied for 10th in receiving touchdowns (three).
• There is great news out of the Arizona Fall League for Twins fans. Kyle Gibson, a 2009 first-round draft choice who pitched only 281/3 innings in the minors this year coming off Tommy John surgery in November of 2011, is 3-0 with a 0.69 ERA in 13 innings over three starts for the Peoria Javelinas. He leads the league in strikeouts (19) and has walked only two batters.
• Another good sign for the Twins: Outfield prospect Nate Roberts is hitting .526 for Peoria with a .667 on-base percentage through seven games. Roberts hit .299 in 76 games with the Class A Beloit Snappers this year.