Inside Slant: Minnesota vs. Michigan

The legend of Philip Nelson continues to grow with each week. The freshman quarterback has thrown five touchdowns passes in two starts, including passing for 246 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions in last week's blowout win over Purdue.

Nelson has been impressive, but faces his toughest test of his young career against Michigan's stingy pass defense. The Wolverines (5-3, 3-1) lead the nation in pass defense, but Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said nothing seems to bother his first-year signal-caller.

"More than anything, I'm surprised he's like this all the time," Kill said, talking about Nelson's calm demeanor. At Wisconsin, when things didn't go right, (when he) threw two interceptions last week, he didn't come over and take his strap down. He stayed even keel.

"It's a reflection of his background and his comfort level with the Gophers' offense," Kill added. "When I was 18 or 19, I probably wouldn't do that very well. He's mature. The high school he came from (Mankato West), the system they ran, I think it has a lot to do with it. I'm not going to tell you we take all the credit. He's been raised in a football family."

Nelson showed great patience and taken what defensives have given him in his two starts against Wisconsin and Purdue. He completed 11 of his first 12 passes, three of them touchdowns, against Purdue last week.

"Whatever the defense is giving us," Nelson said of his strategy. Wisconsin wanted to eliminate deep plays. We tried taking a shot on a reverse-pass, but they played it well. So you have to chip your way down the field."

The Gophers and coach Kill have been waiting for another shot at Michigan since last year's embarrassing 58-0 rout in Ann Arbor. The Wolverines had 10 or more yards on 18 plays and finished with 580 total yards. The Gophers, now 5-3 and 1-3 on the season, are coming off a 44-28 win over Purdue. The Gophers scored 44 straight points to avenge last year's 45-17 loss to the Boilermakers.

"Some things you don't have to bring up," Kill said. "I mentioned it (Saturday) after our game. I think we all understand we flat got embarrassed. So (I told them), 'Enjoy tonight. Enjoy the victory. Enjoy the moment. But tomorrow, it's back to work. I may have mentioned how in the third or fourth quarter against Purdue (in 2011), they were pretty loose, talking. I said, 'they basically laughed at us because we were getting our butts kicked.' I said, 'Some of you guys remember that?'"

The Gophers are a completely different team than the 2011 version that got manhandled by the Wolverines. But then again, the 2012 Michigan team is nowhere near as confident or successful as last year's squad. The Gophers might catch a break if Michigan senior quarterback Denard Robinson in unable to play after suffering a nerve injury to his right elbow last week. Robinson missed the second half of last week's Nebraska game. Michigan second-year coach Brady Hoke said he expects Robinson to play.

"He should be ready to go on Saturday," Hoke said. "He wouldn't play if he didn't practice."

If Robinson can't play or is limited, Russell Bellomy is the backup and wide receiver Devin Gardner is taking snaps in practice this week. Gardner is a former quarterback. Bellomy struggled in relief of Robinson, throwing three interceptions.

Kill admitted the defensive game plan will undergo a big alteration if Robinson doesn't start, or play much in Saturday's game. Regardless, he said, the Gophers are preparing for Robinson to play the whole game. In last year's blowout loss to the Wolverines, Robinson finished with 220 total yards of offense and three touchdowns in just over two quarters of play.

"That's a preparation nightmare," Kill said Sunday about Robinson. "He's a great player. I'll be glad when his (butt) is gone. There's nobody in the Big Ten that's more dynamic. (Nebraska quarterback) Taylor Martinez is explosive, but it's a different kind of explosiveness. There are not many that come around like that."

Kill said Robinson's injury is one that can be troublesome for a quarterback due to taking constant hits.

"It's kind of like having a stinger if you're a linebacker," Kill said. "It hangs there for a while. I imagine he's had it. And got it again. He couldn't take a snap or anything, but he's got a week to get all that back. Now maybe he takes a hit, and it (gets injured) again. I don't know."

The winner of the Michigan-Minnesota game takes home the Little Brown Jug. The Gophers haven't possessed the trophy since beating Michigan in 2005.

Michigan makes its first visit to the 50,805-seat outdoor TCF Bank Stadium this Saturday. Maybe the new digs will provide some luck to the Gophers, who have won just 24 times in the 98 all-time meetings with the Wolverines.

True freshman quarterback Philip Nelson, who became the first true freshman to start a home game for the Gophers last week since Rickie Foggie did against Ohio State on Sept. 28, 1984, passed for 246 yards and three touchdowns in a memorable home debut win over Purdue last week.

The Gophers have a unique distinction that most college football teams can't lay claim to, starting three different quarterbacks and three different centers this year.

A win over Michigan on Saturday would be a welcome sign for the Gophers, who haven't won two straight Big Ten games since 2010. A win would give the Gophers their sixth of the season, giving Minnesota six wins in a season for the first time since 2009.

SERIES HISTORY: Michigan leads Minnesota 71-24-3 (last meeting, 2011, 58-0 Michigan).

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Minnesota freshman quarterback Phillip Nelson has been sacked once in his short career. He suffered a big hit in last week's win over Purdue, but stayed in the game. "Philip got up a little slow," said Jerry Kill of Purdue's Kawann Short's hit on his quarterback. "If I felt uncomfortable, I would have put Max in. In practice, we give them both reps. But the kid was in rhythm. First-half-wise, he played about as good as a quarterback could play."

But Nelson won't have the services of leading wide receiver A.J. Barker, who injured his right ankle in the second quarter last week. Barker had five receptions for 135 yards and two touchdowns against Purdue. The Nelson-Barker connection is growing each week, but Barker is most likely out for the Michigan game.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Minnesota coach Jerry Kill had high praise for cornerback Michael Carter's performance last Saturday. The senior tied a school record with six pass breakups, and he returned an interception for a touchdown. During one stretch, Carter had three straight pass breakups in a row in the second half, including the last one being a 43-yard interception return for a touchdown. Ironically, Carter was almost not a member of the team due to academic problems.

"I've been coaching for 30 years and he certainly had a corner sequence of plays, three straight plays, that you won't see a corner get the chance to do very often," Kill said. "They were three great plays and then he returns one for a touchdown. I'm happy for him."

Michigan's pass defense is the best in the country, but Minnesota isn't far behind. The Gophers rank seventh in the country, allowing 159.9 yards per game. Overall, Minnesota's defense has given up 185 points in eight games after allowing 272 points at the same juncture last year. The Gophers rank eighth nationally in pass efficiency defense and 27th overall in total defense, allowing 337.9 yards per game.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Don't get greedy, don't try to do too much that's what gets young quarterbacks in trouble. We called a few deep balls, but he didn't have them, so he didn't cut loose. That shows a maturity from him. Sometimes, young guys go, 'I'll just try to let the receiver figure it out.' He doesn't." Minnesota offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said of freshman quarterback Philips Nelson.

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Michigan at Minnesota, Nov. 3 The first trip for the Wolverines to Minnesota's TCF Bank Stadium. The Wolverines have won 28 of the past 30 meetings against the Gophers. Minnesota hasn't beaten the Wolverines since 2005, including suffering an embarrassing 58-0 loss to Michigan last year.

KEYS TO THE GAME: Not letting Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson get out of the pocket. The Gophers would rather Robinson beat them with his right arm, not electric running. Robinson injured his arm late in the first half of last week's win over Nebraska. He's listed as doubtful for the Minnesota game. His backup, Russell Bellomy, completed 3-of-16 passes for 38 yards with three interceptions last week. If Robinson sits, the Gophers have to change their defensive game plan and apply significant pressure to force Bellomy into making mistakes.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

QB Philip Nelson: The freshman has been dazzling in his two starts, bringing hope to the Minnesota program with his steady nature and ability to not turn the ball over despite his lack of experience. Michigan has the best pass defense in the nation. We'll see how Nelson responds to this challenge.

RB Donnell Kirkwood: Coming off a career-high 134 yards rushing on 22 carries against Purdue last Saturday. Kirkwood has been steady all season, rushing for 609 yards through eight games. He needs 30 more yards against Michigan to equal Minnesota's leading running back Duane Bennett's total from last year.

D.L. Wilhite: Look for the senior to be a player with something to prove after enduring last year's drubbing to Michigan. Whether Michigan senior quarterback Denard Robinson plays or not, Wilhite has to bring some pressure. As Minnesota's leader in sacks, Wilhite has to pick the right time to collapse the pocket or hang back to guard against Robinson running the ball.

DB Michael Carter: Don't expect Carter to duplicate his impressive numbers from last week. But Minnesota coach Jerry Kill would love Carter to take another interception to the House. Carter's 43-yard interception return for a touchdown was Minnesota's first takeaway in Big Ten play.

WR MarQueis Gray: Some time off from practice helped Gray last week. One of 16 players with at least one catch this year, Gray has played at only wide receiver since returning from an injury in the last two games. Gray has caught eight passes for 89 yards this year. Look for his role to expand against Michigan.

ROSTER REPORT

WR A.J. Barker, Minnesota's best receiver, will likely sit out the Michigan game due to an ankle sprain, according to coach Jerry Kill. "Hopefully, he can recover because he's had a really good year for us," Kill said.

OL Ed Olson is dealing with an ankle sprain that caused him to miss the last two games. Kill plans to limit Olson's use in practice in hopes of getting him to play against Michigan.

LB Lamonte Edwards is questionable with a hamstring injury.

MLB Mike Rallis suffered an ankle injury in last week's game against Purdue.

LB James Manuel is questionable due to a hamstring injury.


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