The sun hasn’t shone on the Gophers spring football game in decades quite like it did Saturday, and to make it even more enjoyable for Coach Jerry Kill, his team delivered a performance to match.
With temperatures climbing into the 70s, an announced crowd of 8,400 turned out at TCF Bank Stadium and saw an entertaining exhibition.
It was filled with momentum shifts, as the team’s two 19-year-old quarterbacks — Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner — marched the opposing offenses up and down the field.
Nelson completed all 10 of his first-half passes, as his Maroon team, featuring the first-team offense, grabbed a 14-3 lead. Leidner answered with two touchdown passes to start the second half, putting the White team ahead 17-14.
“On our sideline we were like, ‘Hey, what the heck’s going on here?’ ” Nelson said. “We needed to move the ball and go out and score.”
So they did.
Nelson hit Derrick Engel with a 39-yard pass, and then found Engel again for a 5-yard touchdown, as the Maroon team finished off a 24-17 victory.
Afterward, Kill gathered his players and told them how proud the coaches were of their effort this spring.
“I thought we had good day overall on both sides of the ball,” Kill said. “And to see two young quarterbacks kind of develop in front of your eyes ...”
Nelson completed 13 of 17 passes for 179 yards and added 45 yards rushing. Leidner went 9-for-15 for 112 yards and added 42 yards on the ground.
“Neither one of those kids turned the ball over, which is huge,” quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski said. “There were no exchange issues. It felt like we were ready for the season.”
The Gophers open the regular season Aug. 29 against UNLV, and the spring game should give them a springboard for the offseason. Since all 14 practices leading up to Saturday were held indoors, everyone was just happy to see the sun.
Longtime fans sure didn’t take it for granted. After leaving the Metrodome, the Gophers held their 2009 spring game at St. Thomas and drew an announced crowd of 7,700. Temperatures were in the 50s that day, just as they were in the first three spring games at TCF Bank Stadium, when the turnouts were much smaller.
Saturday’s crowd saw Rodrick Williams break a tackle and rumble 30 yards on the game’s first drive, setting up the first of two 1-yard touchdown plunges by Donnell Kirkwood.
Leidner brought the White team back, repeatedly finding Jamel Harbison, who proved he’s back from last year’s knee injury by making five catches for 52 yards and a touchdown.
Nelson and the Maroon team stumbled on its first two second-half drives, but he put them back in front with some pinpoint passing. The 39-yarder to Engel came on a post pattern, which set up Engel’s touchdown.
“He threw a back-shoulder ball; it was right on the money,” Engel said of Nelson’s TD pass. “All I had to do was put my hands on it and catch it, so props to him because he’s really, really improved.
“I’m excited to play with him next season.”
Third-string quarterback Chris Streveler saw limited action, completing two of three passes for 6 yards. Leidner thought back to last year’s spring game, when he and Nelson were in the same position as Streveler, after enrolling at the university a semester early.
“Last year, I don’t think me or Phil completed a pass,” Leidner said. “And obviously this year we were able to come out and put some points on the board. It was a lot of fun.”
• GopherIllustrated.com reported that the Gophers received a verbal commitment from Dimonic McKinzy, a quarterback from Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kan., who also has offers from Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas. McKinzy joins Minneapolis Washburn running back Jeff Jones as the two players committed to Minnesota for 2014.
• Wide receiver Andre McDonald watched the game from the sideline. He’s not enrolled at the university because of a personal matter, but the Gophers hope he’ll make up the credits this summer and be back on the team this fall.
• Four defensive starters — Ra’Shede Hageman, Brock Vereen, Derrick Wells and Michael Amaefula — did not play, with the coaching staff determined to keep them healthy.
• Kill said running back Cole Banham got dinged up during the game but didn’t mention any other new injuries.