Nelson, Leidner Score First Career Rushing TDs

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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.

Go Gophers! Philip Nelson
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Nelson ran for two touchdowns in the win.
Go Gophers!
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.

#1 Day Until Gopher Football

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Go Gophers! 1 Ernie Wheelwright and Tutu Atwell
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Gophers vs. UNLV (Aug. 29): Buy Tickets

One day more. Tomorrow is the day when Gopher football season truly begins. While you're waiting, here is one final countdown blog. Tutu Atwell and Ernie Wheelwright each wore No. 1 at Minnesota, and they will bring us down the final stretch until kickoff.

Atwell set Minnesota receiving records with 171 career receptions (now third) for 2,640 yards (now third). His 62 receptions in 1996 were a record at the time. That season, he scored a game-winning touchdown against Ball State.

As a senior in 1997, Atwell led the Big Ten with 2,073 all-purpose yards. One of his most memorable games came against Iowa State that year. He accounted for 349 all-purpose yards, with two kick return touchdowns and a receiving touchdown:


Over his career, Atwell put together a string of 34 consecutive games with a reception. He signed with the Detroit Lions as a free agent in 1998. Atwell did not spend long in the NFL, but his name is still all over the Gopher record books.

Wheelwright is one of the few receivers who has surpassed some of Atwell's numbers. He made an immediate impact as a freshman in 2004. He set Minnesota freshman receiving records for yardage (654) and touchdowns (7), which still stand. Rivals.com named him to its Freshman All-American Second Team.

Wheelwright has Minnesota's second-most receiving touchdowns with 26. From 2006 into 2007, he caught a touchdown pass in seven consecutive games. The streak included a 37-yard TD against Michigan State and a 64-yard TD against Iowa, both wins.

In 2007, Wheelwright was the second receiver behind Eric Decker with 775 yards on 66 catches, including nine touchdowns. He hauled in a career-high three TDs against Northwestern. In all, he had six multiple-touchdown games in his career. Wheelwright signed with the Baltimore Ravens in 2008 before ending up in the CFL.

Bonus reading: Wheelwright had to earn the No. 1 jersey

What They're Saying - Aug. 27

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Gophers look to beat the heat (Pioneer Press), which could be extreme (ESPN1500), and the Rebels (GopherSports)

Ra'Shede Hageman's journey (Star Tribune)

Brock Vereen's family (Pioneer Press) will be there to watch him take on his parents' alma mater (FSN)

Teammates as roommates (Pioneer Press)

Look for the Gophers to run the ball (FSN)

Middle linebacker position getting settled (Star Tribune), with Lynn and Wilson both likely to play (ESPN1500)

"More seasoned" Gophers ready to get on the field (FSN)

Gophers prepared to go deep into lineup on Thursday (Star Tribune)

Your 2013 Gophers (Star Tribune) will face some unknowns against the Rebels (FSN)

Football team a "compelling bunch" (Star Tribune)

Athletes vs. Epilepsy looks forward to working with Kill (Pioneer Press)

#2 Days Until Gopher Football

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Go Gophers! 2 Jack Brewer
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Gophers vs. UNLV (Aug. 29): Buy Tickets

We're almost there. Just two days until the Gophers open their football season. Former No. 2 Jack Brewer represents those two days.

Brewer transferred to Minnesota after one season at SMU. During his time in the Maroon and Gold, he switched back and forth between offense and defense several times. Brewer played mainly safety during his redshirt sophomore season in 1999 before going back to wide receiver. He caught 22 passes for 280 yards as a junior.

As a senior in 2001, Brewer was once again a safety. Despite all the position changes, he put together an outstanding season. Brewer led the Big Ten with 155 tackles, 89 of them solo. He was named to the All-Big Ten First Team by the media.

Brewer spent time with the Minnesota Vikings, the New York Giants, the Philadelphia Eagles and the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL. Since then, he has become successful off the field. Brewer put his Minnesota bachelor's and master's degrees to use, founding his own advisory and banking firm called the Brewer Group. 

He is heavily involved in philanthropic work through the Brewer Group's Jack Brewer Foundation. In 2009, he received a Congressional Certificate for JBF's work in Malawi.

#3 Days Until Gopher Football

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Go Gophers! 3 Ron Johnson and Bryan Cupito
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Gophers vs. UNLV (Aug. 29): Buy Tickets

Former No. 3 jersey wearers Ron Johnson and Bryan Cupito do the honors of helping with today's countdown to Gopher football. Both rank highly in the Minnesota record books.

Go Gophers! Ron Johnson
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Johnson is the Gophers' No. 2 all-time leading receiver.
Go Gophers!
Johnson played receiver for the Gophers from 1998 to 2001. At the time he graduated, Johnson held Minnesota career records for receiving yardage (2,989 - now second), receptions (198 - now second) and touchdown catches (31). He still holds the single-season record with 1,125 yards in 2000. His 11 touchdowns that year tied a school record. Johnson put together an impressive streak of 46 consecutive games with a reception, which tied an NCAA record.

In Minnesota's 1999 win at No. 2 Penn State, Johnson had a key catch on the final drive that ended with a game-winning field goal. He starred in the Gophers' upset of No. 6 Ohio State in 2000, hauling in eight passes for 163 yards. Another of his career highlights was a 181-yard performance against Iowa in 2001.

Johnson was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens in 2002, and played two seasons with Baltimore before spending some time in the Arena Football League.

Like Johnson, Cupito (2003-06) set several school records during his time as a Gopher. His 7,446 career passing yards and 55 touchdown passes were records until Adam Weber broke them. His pass efficiency rating (138.34) and touchdown-to-interception ratio (2.20) records still stand.

Cupito owns the senior records for completions (214), yardage (2,819) and TD passes (22). He recorded two four-touchdown games and four 250-plus-yard games in 2006. A three-year starter, Cupito went to a bowl game each of those seasons.

In the Gophers' Little Brown Jug victory at Michigan in 2005, Cupito threw for 139 yards and a touchdown on 11-of-23 passing before an injury forced him out of the game. Two games later, he accounted for a career-high 396 yards through the air.

Gophers Look to Beat the Heat and the Rebels

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Going into the 2012 season opener, you might have expected the Gophers to face scorching weather in the Las Vegas desert. But it turns out that this year's Minnesota-UNLV game at TCF Bank Stadium could have more extreme summer weather than the 86-degree game time temperature in Vegas.

August in Minneapolis was unusually mild for the first few weeks of the Gophers' fall camp. Temperatures starting to pick up last week, and the heat and humidity are predicted to hold up for Thursday's game. 

Due to the heat wave, the coaching staff moved both this weekend's practices from the late afternoon up to the morning. Even so, the heat index easily reached the 90s during Sunday's practice.

"You don't want your kids worn out before they play," head coach Jerry Kill said.

Changing practice times and allowing plenty of water breaks are a few ways the Gophers are combating the heat. If the thermometer reads in the 90s at kickoff on Thursday night, Kill plans to go deep into the lineup so that the players on the field are fresh.


In case you missed it: Here are some sound bites from Saturday's media availability.

#4 Days Until Gopher Football

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Go Gophers! 4 Ryan Thelwell
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Gophers vs. UNLV (Aug. 29): Buy Tickets

Ryan Thelwell (1994-96) ranks fifth all-time in career receiving yards for the Gophers. The former wearer of No. 4 represents the number of days left until the Gophers face UNLV in their season opener.

Thelwell and Tutu Atwell teamed up as quarterback Cory Sauter's favorite targets. In 1996, Thelwell set Minnesota's career receiving record, finishing with 2,232 yards, which now ranks fifth. His 1,051-yard total that season was then a record, and still ranks third. Thelwell led the Gophers in all-purpose yards (all receiving).

In Minnesota's 1996 contest against Ball State, Thelwell set a record that still stands when he gained 228 receiving yards. He did so on just eight catches, including one touchdown. Thelwell seems to have been especially successful against Ball State, as he hauled in three touchdowns against the Cardinals a year earlier.

The London, Ontario, native was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers but signed with the San Diego Chargers. He played in a handful of games in 1998, but eventually ended up in his home country playing in the CFL. Thelwell was a CFL All-Star and won three Grey Cups before his retirement.

#5 Days Until Gopher Football

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Go Gophers! 5 Billy Cockerham
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Gophers vs. UNLV (Aug. 29): Buy Tickets

Gopher football is getting so close that former No. 5 Billy Cockerham could count on one hand (or on the back of his old jersey) the days left until kickoff. Cockerham (1996-99) started at quarterback in his last two seasons at Minnesota.

Go Gophers! Billy Cockerham
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Cockerham was one of the Gophers' best running quarterbacks.
Go Gophers!
The program's No. 10 all-time passer, Cockerham threw 252-for-485 for 3,483 yards and 29 touchdowns over his career. As a junior in 1998, he came in late in the game against Michigan State and helped the Gophers to a comeback 19-18 win. Cockerham threw a touchdown pass to Luke Leverson, then ran 25 yards after an onside kick to set up a field goal.

His senior year, Cockerham set what was then a school record with 2,992 yards of total offense. His quarterback rushing record of 831 yards stood until MarQueis Gray broke it in 2011. Cockerham was the team's second leading rusher, and he reached the end zone 10 times on the ground. He passed for 2,091 yards and 15 touchdowns.

One of Cockerham's most memorable games was the 1998 upset at No. 2 Penn State. He racked up 277 yards and two touchdowns on 14-of-24 passing. Most importantly, Cockerham led the drive that resulted in Dan Nystrom's game-winning field goal. His 46-yard completion to Ron Johnson, and a tipped pass caught by Arland Bruce, put Minnesota in field goal range.

Cockerham signed with a Vikings as a free agent in 2000, and spent time as a wide receiver on the practice squad. He went to the Frankfurt Galaxy of NFL Europe in 2002.

What They're Saying - Aug. 24

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Botticelli an unsung hero for the defensive line (Star Tribune)

Coach Kill's changing attitude toward epilepsy (Pioneer Press)

In case you missed it....

Rick Reilly's piece on Coach Kill from Thursday (ESPN)

The debut of the GopherSports "Brick by Brick" web series:

What They're Saying - Aug. 23

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AUDIO: Kill

Football luncheon next Wednesday. Sign up today! (GopherSports)

Commissioner Delany was in town (GopherSports) and had praise for Coach Kill (Pioneer Press)

Kill's track record of developing NFL Players (Star Tribune)

Extended Delany thoughts (1500ESPN) and an injury update (1500ESPN)

More Delany (Star Tribune)

Nice feature story on Brock Vereen (Star Tribune)

Kicking competition heats up (FSN)

Bold predictions (Gold and Gopher)

Rick Reilly on Jerry Kill: "I didn't have time for cancer," Kill says. "I was coaching." (ESPN.com)

The responses have been tremendous....