The Gophers appear to have figured out the best way to remedy their ailing football team: unleash Philip Nelson.
The true freshman quarterback played like a seasoned veteran Saturday and led Minnesota to a 44-28 victory over Purdue — the team’s first Big Ten victory of the season.
Minnesota (5-3) needs to win one of its remaining four games to become eligible for a bowl game for the first time since 2009.
Nelson was gun-shy and tentative in his first career start last weekend at Wisconsin. On Saturday, Nelson let ’er rip and slayed the Boilermakers’ secondary with the deep ball.
He finished 15-for-22 for 246 yards passing. He had three first-half touchdowns — all on throws that traveled at least 30 yards. A fourth 30-plus-yard pass set up another score.
“We noticed that Purdue, their corners would like to bite on some short-game stuff,” Nelson said. “We put in some double-routes, and we caught them jumping early.”
The Gophers, who had lost their first three Big Ten games with poor first halves, started slowly once again Saturday.
Minnesota went three-and-out on its first series, and a shanked punt set Purdue up with good field position. Akeem Shavers’ 40-yard run granted Purdue a 1st-and-goal opportunity, which it capitalized on with a 1-yard touchdown pass from Caleb TerBush to Brandon Cottom.
The Gophers responded in a big way — with 44 unanswered points.
Nelson capped a 10-play, 72-yard drive with a 34-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Derrick Engel.
On Minnesota’s next possession, Nelson hit a diving MarQueis Gray for 33 yards to set up the Gophers’ next score — a 4-yard run by Rodrick Williams Jr.
Gray, who began the season as Minnesota’s starting quarterback, said he has made a smooth transition to wide receiver.
“I just have to make my plays count whenever the ball is in the air,” Gray said.
The Gophers busted the game wide-open in the second quarter as Nelson continued to find receivers downfield.
Nelson dropped a gorgeous pass into A.J. Barker’s breadbasket for a 38-yard score early in the second. On the next possession, the duo hooked up once again for a 63-yard touchdown.
The Gophers tacked on a couple of field goals late in the half and took a 34-7 lead into the locker room.
“We were able to move the chains and score touchdowns, and [Nelson] was accurate on the deep ball,” Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. “Everything just seemed to fall into place, and we executed well. We made some big plays, which we needed to do.”
Cornerback Michael Carter made the biggest play of the second half on the Boilermakers’ opening possession.
Carter had been around the ball all day, deflecting passes and wreaking havoc in the secondary. On a crucial 3rd-and-10, he read TerBush’s eyes, jumped an out-route and took it 43 yards to the house.
“[All I saw was] the fans,” Carter said. “I just saw daylight and ran towards the fans so I could score.”
Purdue tacked on a few touchdowns in the second half but never really threatened the Gophers’ lead.
The Boilermakers’ defense kept Minnesota’s offense in check for the early part of the second half. As the game wore on, however, the Gophers were able to gain significant yardage on the ground.
Running back Donnell Kirkwood and Williams helped Minnesota run out much of the fourth quarter.
Kirkwood finished with 134 rushing yards. As a team, the Gophers ran for 212 yards.
Barker finished with five catches for 135 yards and the two scores, despite leaving the game with an ankle injury after the second touchdown catch.
He said he is “cautiously optimistic” that he’ll be ready to go Saturday when Minnesota hosts Michigan.
The Gophers have not beaten the Wolverines since 2005.