You might not have noticed Philip Nelson's best plays during the Gophers' 17-3 victory over Illinois on Saturday, or some of his best work in the four weeks he has been the team's starting quarterback.
Because they never happened. And that's the point.
Nelson already is mastering, Gophers coaches say, the first rule of football: Do no harm.
"You can talk about his [statistics], but some of the best decisions he makes are what he decides not to do," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "Not to throw the ball into coverage, not to force something that isn't there. He doesn't take many sacks [and] ... he knows very well that sometimes an incompletion is better than risking [an interception]."
That's one of the reasons coach Jerry Kill and his staff are excited about Nelson's progress at the position, even though he is completing only 55.6 percent of his passes, even though he threw for only 78 yards in a run- dominated victory at Illinois.. The freshman threw two interceptions in his collegiate debut at Wisconsin last month, but he hasn't been picked off since, a streak of 67 passes and counting.
And he's been tackled behind the line of scrimmage only three times, helping to avoid long-yardage situations.
Limegrover said he understands fans might be disappointed that the 19-year-old hasn't repeated the 246-yard, three-touchdown performance that he showed against Purdue. But they need to appreciate, he said, how valuable not putting his team in difficult situations is, especially for a team with as little experience as the Gophers.
"I hear [from fans on third-and-4, 'Oh, he threw it out of bounds,' " Limegrover said. "Well, he gave us a chance to punt that ball and maybe pin someone in, rather than give someone the ball at midfield because he took an unnecessary chance."
The Gophers are being proactive about building Nelson's confidence -- even though he doesn't seem to need it.
"The kid's been unflappable," Limegrover said. "It hasn't all been perfect, but just learning to let it wash off his back, he's done a great job with that."
And he's got a good grip on the longterm plan, too. Coach Jerry Kill introduced Nelson to Joel Sambursky, who quarterbacked four seasons for Southern Illinois under Kill, last Saturday, to prove what's possible. Sambursky, who took over a team that went 1-10 in Kill's first season at SIU, went 4-8 as a freshman, then 29-8 over his final three seasons.
"I told [Nelson] that Coach Kill knows how to get things turned around, and it's important that the quarterback reflect the head coach, that the team sees that," said Sambursky, now a financial planner who broadcasts Salukis football games on the radio. "I told him, I'm sure you could have plugged into a program that goes into a bowl game every year. But when Coach gets this turned around, you'll be part of the team that accomplished something huge, and that's so much more fulfilling."
Nelson was happy to hear it.
"It was a nice reassurance there. Along with it comes a lot of hard work, because it ain't easy," the quarterback said. "It's something that's not going to happen overnight ... But it's really exciting the way he talks about how this progression happens."
Surgery for Mottla
Center Zach Mottla had surgery to repair a broken right leg, and Kill said he hopes the junior can heal quickly enough to take part in spring drills in March.
"If you talked to him, he'd say he's going to be ready to go in two months," Kill said of Mottla, injured late in Saturday's game. "I think it'll be awhile."
In Mottla's absence, left guard Zac Epping likely will start at Nebraska on Saturday, though Kill said there is a chance Jon Christenson could recover from an ankle injury in time to play. And Ed Olson, the team's starting left tackle before an injury of his own, practiced snapping the ball Tuesday; he'll be the emergency center at Nebraska.