Nelson takes hits, keeps moving

Gophers quarterback Philip Nelson had two rushing touchdowns in the season-opener.

Jack Satzinger

Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson saw it coming, he said.

As he faked a handoff to Gophers junior Donnell Kirkwood, Nevada-Las Vegas defensive ends pinched inside and swarmed toward the running back. Nelson, still with the ball, broke to the outside behind excellent blocking and scampered 48 yards to the end zone for Minnesota’s first touchdown of 2013. He went nearly untouched.

That was just one of Nelson’s team-high 12 rushes in the Gophers’ 51-23 win over UNLV on Thursday night, and one of the few runs in which he didn’t get hit.

Still, Nelson said he doesn’t mind some contact.

“It felt great to finally get hit out there and kind of ease the nerves after not getting hit all of fall camp,” Nelson said after the game. “I think toughness is what we preach, and that’s how we want to play.”

That toughness started with Nelson.

He took a beating en route to 83 rushing yards and two rushing touchdowns, personifying the prevailing identity of the Gophers offense: ground and pound.

But before Nelson made UNLV’s defense look foolish, it did the same to him.

On the Gophers’ first drive of the game, a deep pass from Nelson intended for senior wide receiver Derrick Engel was intercepted.

After Minnesota’s defense forced UNLV to punt, the Gophers offense regained possession in Rebels territory.

Five of the first six plays in the drive were rushes, and when Nelson dropped back to pass on the seventh play, he fumbled. The Gophers had to settle for a field goal.

Nelson didn’t let a few mistakes bother him, though. He kicked off Minnesota’s third drive with a 21-yard pass to tight end Drew Goodger. Then the true sophomore quarterback followed that up with his 48-yard rushing touchdown.

Nelson showed toughness leading the offense to score after two haphazard drives.

“I think it all starts with your quarterback, who keeps the kids in there,” head coach Jerry Kill said of the offensive resurgence. “Philip’s done a good job. … He doesn’t lose his cool.”

Nelson said having an extra year of experience played a critical role in staying composed. The Gophers pulled his redshirt last season after quarterback MarQueis Gray went out with a high ankle sprain. Nelson went on to start in seven games.

Tough minded

Overall, Minnesota’s offense appeared disciplined Thursday, only committing one penalty in the game. But Nelson still made mistakes early on in the contest that could prove detrimental in a game against a strong Big Ten opponent later in the season.

“I’m pleased that we didn’t have any false starts. … That’s a great thing,” Kill said. “But I’m not pleased when [we] trip over the guard at the goal line and don’t score a touchdown. That’s four points … that gets you beat.”

Passing attack in question

Along with cleaning up those little mistakes, Nelson still needs to prove he can be a competent passer through the air. He under-threw receivers on several occasions, including on his first-quarter interception.

Kill said the Gophers ran the read-option extensively Thursday to exploit UNLV’s inability to stop it. They had 38 rushing plays to just 23 passing, and Nelson couldn’t capitalize on chances through the air.

After going 10-for-22 for just 99 passing yards, he leaves much to be desired of the Gophers’ passing attack.

“We did a great job of being able to bounce back as an offense,” Nelson said. “We had some [errors], and that’s what the program taught us in the offseason — being able to fight through adversity.”