MINNEAPOLIS | Minnesota made a bold move to pull the redshirt off Philip Nelson at midseason and make the freshman their new quarterback.
Now the Gophers are left to ponder what he could've done if he'd taken over from the start.
Nelson threw three touchdown passes in the first half of his second college start, and the Gophers breezed to their first Big Ten victory of the season by beating Purdue 44-28 on Saturday afternoon.
Coach Jerry Kill was asked afterward if he wonders if the switch was too late instead of too soon.
"You just don't know what would've happened. I'm always going to be second-guessed, and I'd probably be sitting out there asking the same question," Kill said. "But I think that we've done the right things of moving along."
Nelson led Minnesota (5-3, 1-3 Big Ten) to touchdowns on four straight possessions while the Gophers averaged almost 10 yards per play. He completed 12 straight passes in one stretch and had all 246 of his yards in the first half on the way to a 34-7 lead, more points than Minnesota had in any game last year.
"I never really changed my mindset in the season," Nelson said. "I always prepared like I was going to play, just to make sure that my opportunity wouldn't embarrass me."
Nelson hasn't had to worry about that.
"He made a lot of great plays that made me believe he's probably going to be a special player in time," Purdue coach Danny Hope said. "He looked like a great prospect today."
Nelson connected with A.J. Barker for two scores and Derrick Engel for another. Engel and Rodrick Williams enjoyed their first career touchdowns. The defense wasn't outdone, either. TerBush was sacked three times, and Carter tied the program record with six pass breakups, including three on the same drive he ended with an interception returned for a touchdown. Jordan Wettstein made three of his four field-goal attempts.
"He's just got an extremely quick release, and he's very decisive back there, which his huge," said Barker, who gained 135 yards on five catches before spraining his ankle and sitting out the second half.
Purdue's Caleb TerBush was pulled for Robert Marve in the third quarter for Purdue (3-5, 0-4) after finishing 5 for 18 for 49 yards and an interception that Michael Carter returned 43 yards for a score.
TerBush, almost four years older than Nelson, looked more like the guy making his second start. After a decent 2011 season, the fifth-year senior has struggled through much of this fall. The same team that lost by three points at now-fifth-ranked Notre Dame and in overtime last week at ninth-ranked Ohio State has been blown out by Michigan, Wisconsin and now Minnesota.
"That's why the Big Ten's so funny," Nelson said, adding: "Every single game could be a different outcome. You can never expect anything."
Marve went 11 for 19 for 97 yards and two touchdowns in relief, and Rob Henry added a late scoring pass too. But the Gophers were so dominant early that the Boilermakers outscored them 21-3 and outgained them 258 to 102 in total yards over the last 29 minutes, and that didn't even matter.
"We lost a game we should've won, talent-wise I feel. I felt great about this week, and this wasn't the outcome I thought would happen," Marve said.
Behind an injury-shuffled offensive line missing three of the original five starters, Nelson revived a group that had nine turnovers in the first three conference games. He finished 15 for 22 and ran nine times for 37 yards. Donnell Kirkwood rushed 22 times for 134 yards. This was Minnesota's most-lopsided Big Ten win since a 63-26 decision over Indiana on Nov. 4, 2006.
Christian Eldred's 16-yard punt followed a three-and-out by the Gophers to start the game, and the Boilermakers jumped all over the friendly field position for an early 7-0 lead on TerBush's 1-yard touchdown toss after a 40-yard run by Akeem Shavers.
That lopsided sequence of opening possessions was worth remembering simply for how sharply the game tilted toward Minnesota immediately after. Eldred didn't kick again until midway through the third quarter.
Whether with a pump fake and a perfect in-stride pass to a receiver on a fly pattern up the sideline or a patient wait for his target to make a double move and get open in the secondary, Nelson was in veteran form.
He hit Engel for 34 yards to tie the game. MarQueis Gray, the injury-affected senior Nelson replaced in the middle of the huddle, grabbed a 33-yard pass near the goal line to set up Williams for a short scoring run. Barker hauled in a 38-yard completion on the second play of the second quarter to stretch the lead further.
Then after Purdue stalled at the Minnesota 44 and punted, Nelson connected with Barker again, for 63 yards and a touchdown without a defender near him. The snowball effect was clear. The Boilermakers had that punt surrounded inside the 1-yard line, but Danny Anthrop accidentally stepped across the goal line while downing the ball to give the Gophers a touchback, yet another special teams mistake for Purdue in a season full of them.
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