On a beautiful spring day at TCF Bank Stadium, a pair of young quarterbacks put on a show for the thousands of Gopher fans in attendance.
Returning starter Philip Nelson came out firing, and redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner came on strong later in the game. Nelson's Maroon team scored both of its first-half touchdowns on the ground, but that did not overshadow the sophomore quarterback's passing game. He completed all 10 of his passes in the half for 119 yards.
"It was just really great to get out here in a game-like atmosphere and being able to have more consecutive drives and being able to really move the ball down the field like a real-life game," Nelson said. "That helps build some momentum."
Nelson completed the longest pass of the game, a 39-yarder to Derrick Engel, to open the fourth quarter.
"We had struggled on that a couple other practices," Nelson said. "It felt really good to finally complete one of those and move forward from there."
Two plays later, Nelson again connected with Engel for his only touchdown of the game. Nelson finished the game 13-of-17 for 179 yards. The sophomore, who said he feels faster than last year, also used his legs for a 20-yard run. Leidner, playing in his first spring game, started out running more than passing. But he started to throw more and eventually helped the Gold team take the lead.
"I was able to read the defense quicker," Leidner said. "Jamel (Harbison) was running some great routes, along with Victor (Keise) and Logan (Hutton). It was just getting easier as the game went on."
Both quarterbacks feel they have grown since last season. Nelson said his ability to read coverage has improved, while Leidner said he feels more comfortable with the Gopher offense. The competition between the two has helped both improve. Though Nelson took over the starting role as a true freshman, head coach Jerry Kill is not ruling out the possibility of Leidner challenging for playing time.
The depth chart for the season opener will not be set until fall camp is over.
"Competition is always going to be a competition," Kill said. "I've been that way everywhere I've been. Somebody has to take Philip's job. Right now it's his job. Somebody has to take it. That's part of how you play."
With the weather finally cooperating, the Gopher football team took the field at TCF Bank Stadium on a beautiful Saturday afternoon for the 2013 spring game. The Maroon team beat their White team counterparts by a final score of 24-17. The Maroon dominated offensively, outgaining the White Team in passing, rushing and total yards.
The Philip Nelson-led Maroon team started out the scrimmage, which drew an announced 8,400 spectators, with a long drive from the 35-yard line that included two fourth down conversions, culminating in a one-yard Donnell Kirkwood touchdown. Rodrick Williams gave the game its first big play earlier in the drive, breaking off a 30-yard run to the eight yard line.
Nelson didn't slow down in the second half. He found a streaking Derrick Engel over the middle and hit him perfectly in stride for 39 yards on the first play of the fourth quarter. Two plays later, Engel was the recipient of another Nelson pass, this time for a 10-yard touchdown.
Nelson finished his strong Spring Game with 179 yards and the touchdown on 13-17 passing, chipping in 31 yards on the ground as well. The Mankato West product was a perfect 10 for 10 in the first half for 119 yards.
"I thought he operated pretty smooth for the most part," said Coach Kill of Nelson's performance. "We had a couple hiccups. I'm not really sure that's his fault or not. We'll have to go back on film. He got off to a good start."
Quarterback Mitch Leidner performed admirably, amassing 118 yards and two touchdowns on 10-18 passing, primarily for the White team. Late in the third quarter, Leidner found Logan Hutton in the end zone to cut the White team's deficit to 14-10. Then, Leidner capitalized on the short field provided by a Maroon team fumble to give the White a short-lived 17-14 lead on a 10-yard TD toss to Jamel Harbison.
Leidner believes he's made big strides already this spring.
"I think I improved a lot. I feel way more comfortable with the offense and throwing the football and running the football," said Leidner, a redshirt freshman from Lakeville, Minn. "It's just been a great spring for me."
The redshirt freshman Harbison showed that he's recovered from an ACL tear suffered in last year's season opener at UNLV. The North Carolina native carried the load for the White receiving corps, finishing with 52 yards on five catches.
"I had no problem cutting," said Harbison. "My knee was not a problem."
Derrick Engel and Maxx Williams also stood out in the passing game. Engel led all players with 74 yards receiving, including a touchdown from Nelson, and Williams continued his impressive spring with 54 yards of his own on three catches.
The rushing attack for both teams was spread out, but Rodrick Williams led the way with 49 yards. Kirkwood scored the two touchdowns and finished with 23 yards, while Cole Banham also showed flashes, breaking off a couple of big gains, including a 16-yard run.
With the Spring Game in the books, Minnesota will take a break as the team heads into a dead period. The team will resume practice in the fall as they ramp up to the season opener on August 29 vs. UNLV at TCF Bank Stadium.