By athletic communications assistant Michael Molde
Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson made his eighth career start for the Golden Gophers on Thursday night, helping to propel Minnesota to its highest point total ever at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Gophers turned in a very successful debut to the 2013 season, soundly defeating UNLV, 51-23, before a crowd of 44,217. Nelson completed 10-of-22 pass attempts for 99 yards and a touchdown, while also leading the Gophers with 12 rushing attempts for 83 yards and two TDs.
Nelson ran for two touchdowns in the win.
The rushing touchdowns were the first of his brief career, and the rushing total also topped his previous best of 67 yards during his first-ever collegiate game at Wisconsin last fall. With the speedy Nelson utilizing his feet, he helped Minnesota sustain drives, going 8-of-14 on third-down conversions.
Nelson gave Minnesota its first lead of the game, breaking free for a 48-yard run up the middle just 1:15 into the second quarter. Just seconds before halftime, he helped the Gophers retake the lead, 16-13, by lofting a touchdown pass to freshman tight end Maxx Williams with 0:18 remaining before the break.
"We knew we had to score at the end of the half. In practice, we worked a lot on the two-minute drill and I think tonight we executed it very well," Nelson said. "When we practice against our own defense, we have a tough time scoring on them in two minutes. I think we did a really great job finishing off the drive the way we wanted to."
In the second half, Minnesota received a boost from its defense and special teams, which combined for three touchdowns to break the game open, and Nelson added his second rushing touchdown midway through the final stanza to give the Gophers a 44-16 lead before giving way to redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner.
In limited minutes, Leidner made his mark, as well. The 6-foot-4, 233-pounder rushed three times for 25 yards and the team's final score of the game, plowing his way into the end zone for a four-yard TD run with 0:42 left.
It was an impressive performance from the Gophers' top two signal-callers, as they limited mistakes and displayed the type of run-pass threats that have been typical in head coach Jerry Kill's offenses.
Nelson's second pass of the game, a long heave down the Minnesota sideline, was intercepted at the 15 yard line. But he was able to avoid any further turnovers, while also directing a Minnesota offense that wasn't whistled for a penalty until the fourth quarter. The Gophers ended their season-opener with just one penalty for five yards.
"I think Philip, just by watching, has a lot of confidence, and the one pick he threw could go either way," head coach Jerry Kill said.
Overall, it was a heck of a start to the season for the Gophers' highly-touted QB from Mankato West High School, and it will give next week's opponent, New Mexico State, lots to prepare for.