Minnesota quarterback Philip Nelson, right, carries the ball into the end zone for a touchdown during the fourth quarter in Minneapolis on Saturday. (Ann Heisenfelt / Associated Press)
Minneapolis — When Philip Nelson picked Minnesota, he envisioned program-lifting wins like this.
With recovering coach Jerry Kill providing extra motivation, the Gophers pushed around Nebraska all afternoon to beat the Cornhuskers for the first time since 1960.
Nelson rushed for two touchdowns and passed for another, guiding Minnesota to a 34-23 upset Saturday of 25th-ranked Nebraska.
“We just have this confidence we can compete with anyone,” said Nelson, who made all of his seven completions count, for 152 yards. He carried the ball eight times for 55 yards, including a spin across the goal line from the 1 with 48 seconds left to seal the victory.
The Gophers (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) became bowl-game eligible and stopped a 16-game losing streak to the Huskers during which they were outscored by an average of 40-9.
“You dream about being able to switch this thing around. That’s just the path that our recruiting class took, because we kind of took a blind leap of faith in this program,” Nelson said, adding: “The way coach Kill runs his programs, we knew that we were going to have success and it was just a matter of time before we really started rolling.”
Taylor Martinez returned from a toe injury on his left foot that kept him out of the last three games for the Huskers (5-2, 2-1), but he had only 16 yards rushing on eight attempts and 139 yards on 16-for-30 passing, plus one touchdown and one interception. They missed right guard Spencer Long, who’s out for the season with a knee injury.
“Taylor was the least of our problems,” Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. He added: “I don’t know whether we think we’re better than we are or what it is, but at the end of the day, we didn’t have the type of approach you have to have on the road to go win a football game.”
David Cobb rushed for 138 yards on 31 attempts and Chris Hawthorne made two field goals for the Gophers, who outgained the Huskers 271-189 on the ground.
Ameer Abdullah had 165 yards on 19 carries and Pat Smith kicked three field goals, about the only bright spots for Nebraska.
“If we win out we can still play for the Big Ten championship,” Martinez said. “We’ve just got to go out there and just keep on winning and not get down on ourselves.”
The Huskers found a rhythm at the end of the third quarter, fueled by a 35-yard, twisting-and-spinning run by Martinez to set up a short touchdown pass to Sam Cotton that cut Minnesota’s lead to 27-20. The thousands of red-clad Nebraska fans, who filled at least one-third of the 50,000 seats, snapped to life in celebration.
The Huskers took the ball with 5:50 left at their 9, trailing by four, but cornerback Martez Shabazz blitzed on third down and sacked Martinez to force a punt. The Gophers then sealed it on offense.
Kill watched from above in the box with his assistants, still on leave from his regular responsibilities while he’s managing his epilepsy. This was the third straight game he wasn’t in charge, with defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys taking over on the sideline, but he gave the players a pep talk before and after the game and at halftime.
The Gophers credited Kill’s surprise appearance and impromptu halftime pep talk last week for spurring them to a victory at Northwestern, and they played with plenty of fire in this one, sensing the opening for their first victory over one of the conference’s traditional powerhouse programs since winning at Michigan in 2005.
“The way that he can inspire us without even being down there, it’s unbelievable,” cornerback Shane Vereen said.
Nelson relieved Mitch Leidner on the fourth series, continuing the quarterback rotation for Minnesota, and delivered one of the best performances of his two seasons here. He helped the Gophers improve to 12-0 when leading at halftime since Kill took over in 2011.
On fourth-and-10 from the 33 in the second quarter, Nelson flicked a perfect pass over the top of the defense to an outstretched Derrick Engel. He tumbled into the end zone for a 14-10 advantage, the first lead by the Gophers over the Huskers in this series since 1969.
The Gophers had gone 11 straight matchups with the Huskers, including each of the last two years as Big Ten foes, without holding a lead, let alone getting a win. But the Gophers, who play at Indiana next week, don’t plan on settling for six victories.
“You don’t get sigh. You don’t celebrate. You get bowl-eligible in October, you set your goals a hell of a lot higher,” Claeys said.