MADISON, Wis. — He was brought to Minnesota to be the quarterback of the future. After injuries to MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell, Gophers head coach Jerry Kill and his staff decided the future is now.
The Philip Nelson era has officially begun.
The true freshman from Mankato, Minn., made his collegiate debut Saturday in Minnesota’s 38-13 loss to Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium
After the game, Kill implied Nelson would start at quarterback for the remainder of the season.
“There’s no question it’s a good move for us,” Kill said. “We need to get this guy some experience. I feel like it’s going to help us a lot in the long run.”
Nelson, Minnesota’s Mr. Football in 2011, showed flashes of brilliance while leading two touchdown drives, but he struggled for most of the game.
Under Nelson’s direction, the offense was just one-for-10 on third downs and went three-and-out six times.
Nelson said he practiced with the first-team offense during the week, and when the coaches told him he was getting the nod, he wasn’t surprised.
Gray, who began the season as the team’s starting quarterback, played wide receiver for much of the game. He finished with three catches for 20 yards. The fifth-year senior suffered a high-ankle sprain in the Gophers’ win over Western Michigan on Sept. 15 and hasn’t started at quarterback since.
“We felt like putting him in the outside to heal up a little bit but still be able to help us make some plays,” Kill said.
Kill added that Gray will likely play receiver for the rest of the season, although he could see some action at quarterback in certain situations.
After the game, a dejected Gray said he’d started to build some cohesion with Nelson.
“As things went on, I just told him to take it one play at a time,” Gray said. “I told him, ‘Just go through your reads and make plays.’”
Minnesota coaches were hoping to preserve Nelson’s redshirt year, but after back-to-back losses in which the offense struggled to move the ball consistently, Kill and company
Nelson appears to have the skill set needed to effectively run Minnesota’s zone-read option offense, and at times Saturday, he looked very good passing and running the football.
In several instances, however, Nelson and his receivers were way out of sync. He said the problem will solve itself with time.
“We’ll be able to build some team chemistry between me, the offensive line and the receivers,” Nelson said. “It’ll make things go smoothly next year.”
—Wisconsin’s nine-straight wins over Minnesota is the longest streak by either side in the rivalry. Minnesota won nine straight games from 1933-41.
—The Gophers have dropped their first three Big Ten games in three consecutive seasons.
—Minnesota was held to 13 points for the third straight week.
—Nelson is the third true-freshman quarterback in program history to start a game. Shortell was the second, in 2011.