MADISON, Wis. There's baptism by fire, and then there's this.
True freshman Philip Nelson found out Friday that he would be the starting quarterback for the University of Minnesota on Saturday against rival Wisconsin at Camp Randall Stadium. Already a hostile environment for visiting teams, it's an even more daunting task for a player making his college debut.
Nelson's first career start yielded mixed results in the Gophers' 38-13 loss. The freshman from Mankato went 13 for 24 for 149 yards, along with two touchdowns and two interceptions.
"It was really exciting," Nelson said. "It felt really great to be out there with my teammates. The coaches made the decision and went with it. I wasn't going to back down from an opportunity like that."
It was an opportunity Nelson said he dreamed about when he was growing up in Madison. His father, Pat, played for the Badgers in the late '70s, and many family members were at Saturday's game to witness the freshman's debut.
While both the Badgers and Gophers recruited Nelson, he stopped short of saying he envisioned playing his home games at Camp Randall Stadium.
"I definitely had dreams to play some D-1 football," Nelson said. "I'm really thankful to be here and have such great teammates and be able to share the opportunity and experience with these guys."
Nelson stepped onto the University of Minnesota campus as the most highly touted high school quarterback in the state of Minnesota. A standout at Mankato West High School, Nelson was named Minnesota Mr. Football after setting state records for single-season touchdown passes (55) and career touchdown passes (135). Scout.com ranked Nelson as the 46th-best quarterback in the nation last year.
The Gophers were hoping they wouldn't have to burn Nelson's redshirt, wanting instead to give him a full year as a freshman to learn the ropes behind MarQueis Gray and Max Shortell. But injuries to both Gray and Shortell left Minnesota with no option but to play Nelson.
So here he was Saturday, being thrown into the fire by a Gophers team trying to stop a two-game losing streak and attempting to beat the Badgers for the first time since 2003.
Just a little bit of pressure for the freshman, but Nelson looked poised despite a slow start.
His first play of the game was, not surprisingly, a handoff to running back Donnell Kirkwood. Nelson then ran for three yards on second down and couldn't handle the snap on third down and had to fall on the ball for an eight-yard loss.
Not the start he or the Gophers envisioned.
But Nelson and the offense started to find a rhythm late in the first quarter. After two straight three-and-outs, Nelson led a scoring drive that ended in a 16-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Brandon Green. On the drive, Nelson completed his first career pass by connecting with tight end Drew Goodger for 18 yards. Nelson also had a 17-yard run two plays later.
The Minnesota scoring drive, which started at the 35-yard line after Wisconsin's kickoff went out of bounds, brought the Gophers to within 7-6 after Jordan Wettstein missed the extra point. It also gave Nelson a bit of boost in his first career start.
"I think after the first two drives, I started to realize that this ain't too much different from practice," Nelson said. "It's just like any other game. That gave me confidence to just keep leading my teammates down the field."
The Gophers trailed, 14-6, at halftime, and Nelson was 7 for 14 for 89 yards and a touchdown at the half. He also carried the ball 11 times in the first half for 49 yards.
On Nelson's first possession of the second half, the freshman committed his first turnover of the game. Nelson tried to hit wide receiver A.J. Barker on a third-down pass, but Badgers defensive back Devin Smith made a play on the ball to pick off Nelson.
After Minnesota fell behind, 24-6, in the third quarter, Nelson led the Gophers on another scoring drive that included passes of 19 and 14 yards and a run of 10 yard before he found Barker for a 12-yard score.
That was the last time Minnesota would score, although Nelson wasn't done experiencing growing pains. He had two incompletions on a three-and-out, including one on a flea flicker. Then, on Minnesota's first drive of the fourth quarter, Nelson was intercepted on the first play. The freshman telegraphed a throw over the middle, and Wisconsin linebacker Ethan Armstrong jumped the rout to make the pick.
Three plays later, the Badgers were in the end zone to punctuate their 38-13 win.
"I think that he had the one interception I know he'd like to have back. The other one, the defensive back just made a great play on it and jumped over us to make the play," Gophers coach Jerry Kill said of Nelson. "I thought his play was encouraging."
Now that Nelson's redshirt is gone, it makes the most sense for the Gophers to roll with him at quarterback the rest of the season. Kill said Saturday that Gray and Shortell are still banged up, so Minnesota might not have a choice. Gray played Saturday at wide receiver, catching three passes for 20 yards.
If Minnesota does stick with Nelson, he'll get five more starts in Big Ten play, plus a possible bowl game if the Gophers become bowl eligible. Saturday's game was certainly a tough way for Nelson to start his career, but taking his lumps will be part of the learning process.
"I think there's no question it's a good move for us," Kill said. ". . . As we looked at it and as we discussed it, and certainly with the lack of durability at that position, we said, hey, we need to get this guy some experience.
"I feel like it's going to help us a lot in the long run."
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