Quarterback Philip Nelson makes surprise start as Mitch Leidner sits
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Before Iowa unleashed a 23-7 beating upon the Minnesota Gophers, Saturday, outside expectations were that "U" redshirt freshman quarterback Mitch Leidner would get the start, with the status of Philip Nelson's strained right hamstring still in question.
So it came as a surprise when Nelson jogged out with the offense on the Gophers' opening drive.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill had been careful to avoid any official statements of who his starter would be, but repeatedly noted Nelson would not be given the go-ahead unless fully recovered from an injury suffered two weeks ago against Western Illinois.
Kill later admitted he didn't fully commit to start Nelson until given reassurance on game day, essentially leaving the decision up to his sophomore quarterback
"Right before game time we all had a talk and Coach Kill just left it up to me, because obviously I know my body best," Nelson said.
Nelson's first game back escalated rapidly into a disaster for the Gophers. Iowa, backed by overpowering defensive line, suffocated Minnesota's recently potent rushing attack and kept the offense a disjointed mess throughout afternoon.
Held to only 30 rushing yards, the Gophers' offense fell apart, unable to do anything to counter Iowa's deflating 17-0 first half outburst and continued defensive stronghold in the second half.
It's safe to argue the offense was doomed regardless of who was given the start between Nelson or Leidner, who was strong in his run-dominated first career start last week against San Jose State.
Criticism shouldn't be directed at the choice to start Nelson. But the decision to stick with him all game, keeping Leidner pacing and trying to stay loose on the sideline, is where the questions arise.
As the offense amassed just 80 total yards in the first two quarters, it seemed likely that Leidner would be given a series or two to deliver a spark.
However, Kill, who said post-game periodically mixing in Leidner was part of the initial game plan, opted away from a two-quarterback system.
Since the Gophers were playing from behind, bringing in Leidner never made sense because "the game didn't dictate that," Kill said. "That's my call and I'm responsible for that. I've been in that situation before, and I didn't feel with the situation that we were that to play them both early was what we needed to do."
"We couldn't run the ball. We had to throw the ball, so we went with maturity and that was the decision that was made."
The Gophers were indeed forced to go to the air in the second half. The results were less than reassuring. With his receivers struggling to sustain a level of cohesiveness, Nelson ended the game 12-of-24 for 135 yards and two interceptions, with 14 of those passes coming in the second half.
Beside a brief period of tentativeness early on, Nelson reported that his hamstring wasn't bothering him. But Nelson had several moments where he appeared hesitant running.
Even though Leidner has no Big Ten experience yet and his arm has rarely been tested when he has played, it didn't seem it could hurt to at least bring in Leidner momentarily in attempt to shake the group out of its stagnate state.
Kill stood behind his decision, putting the fault on himself for Nelson and the offense's woes.
"That's my call, my responsibility to make sure they're ready," Kill said. "We've got to do a better job."
As far as an ongoing quarterback debate, Kill once again deflected questions about any consideration of moving Leidner into a starting role. Instead, Kill remained behind his prior statements of wanting to use two quarterbacks going forward.
"We'll keep working with both of them just like we have all year," Kill said. "I've said all along, we'll need both of them in what we do."