Freshman Philip Nelson threw three touchdown passes in the first half of his second college start for Minnesota, and the Gophers breezed to their first Big Ten victory of the season by beating Purdue 44-28 on Saturday afternoon.
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.
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.
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 the pick six. Jordan Wettstein made three of his four field-goal attempts.
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.
Marve went 11 for 19 for 97 yards and two touchdowns in relief, helping the Boilermakers creep closer with the outcome long decided.
Thanks in part to Drew Brees, the Boilermakers were 11-3 against the Gophers from 1996 until this game. But this winning margin was the biggest for the Gophers in the series since a 35-15 victory in 1989. Coach Danny Hope's job security slipped a little more, dropping his record at the school to 19-26. He's been to one bowl game, but the Boilermakers are going to have trouble repeating that.
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, and Barker gained 135 yards on five catches.
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. Akeem Shavers gained 40 yards around left end to get them close, and TerBush's 1-yard toss to Brandon Cottom finished the drive.
That lopsided sequence of opening possessions was worth remembering simply for how sharply the game tilted toward Minnesota immediately after. Eldreddidn't kick again until midway through the third quarter.
After a so-so debut at Wisconsin last week, Nelson didn't just find a rhythm against a Purdue defense that gave up 401.3 yards per game before this, the second-highest average in the conference. He discovered all kinds of spaces to throw to down the field and plenty of time to do it.
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 sure made coach Jerry Kill's decision to pull the redshirt and give him the job look like a good one.
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.