MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The surprise debut of heralded Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson was a mixture of success and disappointment against Wisconsin at boisterous Camp Randall Stadium on Saturday.
The Golden Gophers freshman signal caller, who didn’t learn he’d be the starter until the team arrived in Madison on Friday, engineered two impressive scoring drives but struggled to effectively move the offense at other times as Minnesota fell to the Badgers 38-13.
The Gophers fell to 4-3, 0-3 in the Big Ten.
Nelson, the former Minnesota Associated Press Player of the Year for high school football, was expected to redshirt this season but was pressed into starting duty due to injuries to MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell. Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said he didn’t want to deal with the nagging injuries to Gray and Shortell much longer and desired to get Nelson some experience for next season, prompting the decision to start him.
“We’ve got to move forward. So we decided to do that, and he was very excited about it,” Kill said. “We made sure he felt good about it through that process. There’s no question we made a good decision, and he did some good things today.”
Nelson completed 13 of 24 passes for 149 yards. He had two touchdown passes and one interception and added 16 carries for 67 yards. Kill said he intends to start Nelson for the remainder of the season.
“It felt really great to be out there with my teammates,” Nelson said. “The coaches made the decision, and I just went with it. I wasn’t going to back down from an opportunity like that.”
James White raced 15 times through Minnesota’s defense for 175 yards rushing and three touchdowns, the ninth consecutive time the Badgers have beaten the Gophers to keep Paul Bunyan’s Axe.
Montee Ball let his partner steal the show for most of the afternoon but still muscled his way for 166 yards and 24 attempts and two fourth-quarter scores to put the game out of reach and push the Badgers (6-2, 3-1) to the 21st win in a row at Camp Randall. That’s one behind LSU for the longest current winning streak in major college football.
Wisconsin has spoiled Minnesota’s upset hopes every year since 2003 and hasn’t lost at home since 1994 in this border-state series that began in 1890. The Gophers played well enough on defense early to have a chance heading into the second half.
But the Gophers, relying frequently on draws and zone read runs up the middle by Nelson, didn’t do much to help their defense out. It was only a matter of time that the Badgers were able to wear down the Gophers with what they’ve done so well for so many years — ramming the ball straight ahead and reaping the rewards.
Kill decided to burn Nelson’s redshirt, giving the kid who grew up near Madison with parents who met in school at Wisconsin a chance to make his debut in a difficult environment.
Several members of Nelson’s family attended the game.
“I definitely had dreams to play some (Division I) football, wherever it was,” Nelson said. “I’m really thankful to be here and have such great teammates and be able to share the opportunity and the experience with these guys.”
Nelson moved to Minnesota before high school and was a highly sought recruit out of Mankato. Wisconsin pursued Nelson before he decided to play for the Gophers.
“We recruited him. His dad played here,” Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema said. “We had heard about him for a number of years. It obviously didn’t go in that direction, but he’s a very good football player.”
Nelson didn’t have much to work with against the Badgers. Starting left tackle Ed Olson didn’t make the trip because of an injury. Gray played wide receiver because several of Minnesota’s top passing targets were hurt.
The Gophers took the opening kickoff, so Nelson didn’t have any time on the sideline to get any more nervous than he surely already was. Zach Mottla’s third-down shotgun snap sailed to Nelson’s left, and he had to hustle to cover the ball so the Gophers could punt from their 16.
Nelson overcame that ominous start with a six-play, 65-yard cruise to the end zone later in the first quarter. He found wide-open Drew Goodger for 18 yards for his first college completion and Brandon Green from 16 yards out for the score.
“For (Nelson) to get thrown in there like that in a situation like this, he did pretty good. He found the open people,” Green said.
Jordan Wettstein’s extra point banged off the right goal post, though, keeping the Gophers from tying the game.
Wettstein’s 51-yard field goal try at the end of the first half had plenty of distance and even appeared to sail directly over the left upright, but it was ruled wide to preserve a 14-6 Wisconsin lead.
In the third quarter, Nelson led Minnesota on a nine-play, 66-yard scoring drive that culminated with a 12-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Barker.
Over the nine straight wins against the Gophers, the Badgers are averaging about 39 points per game and winning by a margin of more than 16 points.
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