Philip Nelson vividly remembers his first career start for the Gophers.
“Walking into Camp Randall and basically growing up in there and seeing everything,” Nelson said, “it was a pretty surreal experience.”
Nelson, a true freshman at the time, started the Wisconsin game after injuries forced quarterbacks MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell out.
Nelson threw two touchdowns and two interceptions, and the Gophers lost 38-13.
Losses have been less frequent this season for 8-2 Minnesota, and that stems from Nelson taking care of the ball.
In eight games this season, Nelson has thrown just four interceptions. He started the final seven games of 2012 and threw eight picks.
Gophers head coach Jerry Kill seemed pleased with the way his quarterback has taken care of the ball this year.
“That’s the key,” Kill said. “You can’t give them anything.”
Nelson hasn’t thrown an interception since Sept. 28, when the Gophers lost their first game of the season against Iowa. Nelson has since said he wasn’t completely healthy for the Iowa game.
Since then, Nelson’s looked like a completely different player, stepping up in the pocket with poise and making big touchdown throws. The Gophers have noticed the difference.
“I think the biggest thing would be his confidence,” senior defensive back Brock Vereen said. “He looks a lot smoother back there.”
The confidence is obvious when observing Nelson on the field. In the second quarter against Nebraska, the Gophers went for it on fourth down needing 10 yards to convert.
Nelson could have thrown a short pass for a first down but instead wound up and unleashed a 33-yard strike to senior wide receiver Derrick Engel for a touchdown.
“When you play confident,” the sophomore quarterback said, “I think you play better.”
Engel hurt his knee in practice last week and could be out for Saturday’s game.
Kill said he thinks confidence has factored into Nelson’s emergence, but experience has carried more weight.
Nelson had a full offseason to prepare as a starting quarterback this year and has played more games. In turn, he’s been more comfortable.
“He’s certainly a lot farther along than he was a year ago,” Kill said.
In Madison, Wis., a year ago, Nelson was an inexperienced true freshman in a hostile environment. He threw two interceptions in a double-digit loss.
He’s since learned how important it is to take care of the ball — and said he won’t forget.
“When we don’t turn the ball over, we’re always in the ball game,” Nelson said. “I think that’s what this team has put an emphasis on from the start of the season.”