Nelson makes most of opportunity, leads team to win

Nate Gotlieb

EVANSTON, Ill. — Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson hadn’t played meaningful minutes since the Gophers’ loss to Iowa on Sept. 28.

But he stepped right in Saturday and led Minnesota on a game-tying touchdown in the second quarter.

His presence catalyzed the Gophers’ offense against Northwestern on Saturday as Minnesota won its first Big Ten game since last November.

“It was a little bit of a surprise,” Nelson said of coming into the game. “All I could really control is preparing myself, and that’s the way the week went for me.”

Freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner started the game and went just 1-for-3 passing. He rushed for 27 yards, but the offense struggled to sustain possession with him under center. He played just one possession after the first quarter.

Nelson appeared comfortable right away Saturday, completing three of four passes and a touchdown on his first drive.

Minnesota’s offense played more physically after the score. It started moving the ball effectively on the ground and kept Northwestern’s quick-strike offense off the field.

Leidner started the second half, but the offense was forced to punt four plays later.

After that, acting head coach and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys opted to stick with Nelson.

“When we put Philip in the second time, it just seemed like we moved the ball a little bit more,” Claeys said.

Nelson made the game-winning play late in the fourth quarter, scrambling six yards for a first down with 1:12 left in the game.

“It was a bit of a gamble there on the boot,” he said. “I thought I had a shot to really get the first down, so it was just a sprint to the pylon.”

Nelson said he and Leidner are friends and support each other, despite the ambiguity they face over playing time. Nelson said he focuses on what he can control — his work ethic and how he plays.

“It’s a little bit difficult being able to stay in a groove,” he said. “But it’s all up to the coaches, and we both want to be able to play, and that’s just the nature of the beast. Whoever can move the ball at that time is going to play.”

Claeys reiterated Sunday that Minnesota won’t use a two-quarterback system but said both should see action early in games.

“Whichever one doesn’t start, I’ll still want to get them in the game in the first half just in case we do have to use them,” he said.