U seeks offensive spark in bowl game

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 22, 2012 - 11:43 PM

The Gophers struggled to score down the stretch, which stands in stark contrast to their bowl opponent.

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Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson experienced growing pains during his freshman season. He has not thrown a touchdown pass in the past 14 quarters.

Photo: Dave Weaver, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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The Gophers football team lost three of its final four games to close the regular season, and it's not difficult to figure out why: In those three losses, the Gophers scored a total of 37 points.

Hey, what a coincidence. Texas Tech, which faces the Gophers in the Meineke Car Care Bowl on Friday in Houston, scored 37 points this season, too.

Per game.

Nobody is suggesting that the Gophers' best strategy is to race up and down the Reliant Stadium turf with the Red Raiders. After all, the Gophers scored more than 30 points only twice all season, while the Red Raiders eclipsed 40 points seven times.

"That's pretty much their league. That's that whole league," Gophers coach Jerry Kill said of the Big 12's shootout style. "It's definitely a different style of football."

True enough, so the offensive comparisons aren't really fair. It's also true, for instance, that no Gophers opponent scored more than 38 points this year, while the Texas Tech defense surrendered more than 50 points four times.

Still, it's clear that the Gophers offense will need to generate more than the 21.3 points it averaged this season, considering the Red Raiders never scored fewer than 21. But the Minnesota offense seemed to grind down in November, particularly its passing game once receiver A.J. Barker became injured and then quit. The Gophers didn't manage 100 yards through the air in any of their final three games, and quarterback Philip Nelson hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in 14 consecutive quarters.

So why would anyone believe the Gophers can score enough points to win a bowl game for the first time since 2004?

"Philip is bouncing back. We're seeing a different guy out there," offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. "The biggest thing is, maybe we underestimated the grind associated with college football. It's true of any player, but think about it: You're a quarterback. And you're a true freshman quarterback. And you've jumped in there in the middle of a Big Ten schedule. And he's dealing with injuries on the line, injuries to the receivers, and I think it wore him down as time went on."

It wore on his confidence, too. After throwing three touchdown passes without an interception to beat Purdue just before Halloween, Nelson seemed to possess the poise of a veteran, not a 19-year-old kid only six months beyond his high school graduation. But the schedule then threw Michigan at him, and a decent Illinois passing defense. Then came Nebraska and Michigan State, the Big Ten's top-rated defenses.

"I saw his confidence go up at first, and it made him play even better. But the last couple of games didn't go the way he wanted," said receiver Derrick Engel, whose 267 receiving yards are the most of any remaining Gophers wideout. "He's a great player when he plays with confidence, so we're trying to make sure he's feeling it again."

To Nelson, the problem isn't so much trusting in himself as trusting his teammates. On film, he said, he saw he was getting antsy in the pocket, rushing plays because he feared his protection wouldn't hold. And he was following his receivers too much, he said, waiting to see where they were headed instead of anticipating their routes.

"It's a matter of just being able to trust everyone around me, to know I have more time than I think when I'm in the pocket, trusting receivers to be in the right spots," Nelson said. "I know my teammates are going to do their job, so I have to do mine."

He might not be the only one to do that job, either. The Gophers also could get a jolt of offense from senior MarQueis Gray, who lost his job as starting quarterback when injuries kept him out of practice for several weeks.

Kill won't reveal his plans for Gray, but he said last week: "I would love to see MarQueis have a tremendous football game. It would make me the happiest person in the world."

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