- Josh Moyer, ESPN Staff Writer
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Philip Nelson could feel the pressure earlier in the season, every time he'd drop back in the pocket. With an injury on his mind, he could feel the defenders bearing down on him, the rushers speeding around the edge.
"I kind of felt like a sitting duck," Nelson told ESPN.com. "I think my mind was on protecting my hamstring a little bit too much."
That hamstring's healed now, replaced with a renewed sense of confidence and a hip pointer that Nelson said only causes some mild discomfort. As a result, Nelson isn't much surprised about his recent success -- throwing for a career-high 298 yards against Indiana and sharing Big Ten player of the week honors with Penn State's Bill Belton.
The Minnesota quarterback swore he knew he was capable of this kind of performance all along, even when he temporarily lost the starting job to Mitch Leidner. He just needed to get healthy first.
"Once I got my mind off my hamstring, I played like I know I can," he said. "And the whole offense started to click at that time; everyone around me started to play really good."
Don't get the wrong idea. Nelson admitted this remains a run-heavy offense, but it's more balanced than ever, and Nelson's comfort level at this juncture is backed up by the numbers. The fact is, hamstring or not, the Gophers’ passing game is better than it has been all season.
In the first six contests, the Gophers averaged 116.8 passing yards a game while big gains -- completions that went for at least 20 yards -- amounted to just nine plays. In the last three games, Minnesota tallied 13 big passing plays and averaged 202.3 passing yards a game.
The Gophers' play-calling has become more aggressive as Nelson's become confident. And that was no secret to Saturday's opponent.
"He's improved every week," Penn State coach Bill O'Brien said. "You can tell he knows what he's doing running the offense. ... I think he's gotten better as a passer."
Nelson experiences the product of that improvement everywhere he walks. Students will stroll up to the true sophomore on campus nowadays, extending their hands and offering congratulations. Professors seem to be even more excited, Nelson said with a laugh, adding that a few will joke about what plays to run next -- like the flea-flicker.
There's a sense of excitement around these Gophers, a team that's on a three-game win streak in the conference, as they're just a Governor's Victory Bell away from setting history. Minnesota hasn't won four in a row in the Big Ten since 1973, when Jerry Kill was a 12-year-old eligible for the Pee Wee ranks.
Nelson knows this passing offense will play an important role Saturday in keeping that streak alive. It's certainly been important in the last three games, since he's accounted for six touchdowns and no turnovers -- and he's not trying to pretend otherwise.
"A lot of teams do a good job of stuffing the run in the Big Ten," he said. "So I think our balanced offense is helping us to continue to help us grow as an offense."
With the passing game finally taking off, offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover has started calling for deeper throws and Nelson called the receiving corps one the most-improved units on the team.
Everything seems to be coming together for the Gophers right now, thanks in big part to Nelson, and its top signal-caller said this team isn't about to take a step backward.
"I think we did a good job of staying on course before," Nelson said. "And, right now, we're just turning it around and having fun."