When you beat a team for the first time in over half a century, it’s great cause for celebration. It’s especially sweet for Minnesota after they knocked off a supposedly superior opponent with what makes them tick—a strong running game, potent pass rush, and a sound game plan.
Behind 31 carries and 138 yards rushing from David Cobb and an eleven-minute advantage in time of possession, Minnesota upset Nebraska 34-23 in Minneapolis for their first win over the Huskers since 1960. On that day, the Huskers entered on the heels of an upset at fourth-ranked Texas which propelled Nebraska to 12th in the rankings—until the Gophers waltzed into Memorial Stadium and handed Nebraska a 26-14 loss. From that point on in the 1960 season, Nebraska would score no more than 17 points in any of their remaining games and sputter to a 4-6 record. I was not around at the time of the loss, but it would certainly indicate it was a momentum killer after the win over the Longhorns. Strangely, Saturday’s loss to the Gophers threatens to derail Nebraska’s season some 53 years later.
Let’s be honest—Minnesota is not a team that’s inspired fear into Nebraska fans or even the team since the Huskers arrived in the Big Ten. After 41-14 and 38-14 wins over the Gophers the past two season, in games which were decided early on and presented such a stark contrast in the talent levels of the two teams, many thought this would be a closer game but ultimately a Husker win by double digits or close to it. However, the Gophers took a page out of Wisconsin’s playbook from the 2012 Big Ten Championship Game and confused, ran through, and around Nebraska’s defense all day. Sprinkle in a pass rush which flustered Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska offense all game long and you have the recipe for what we saw in Minneapolis on Saturday.
Now that the smoke has cleared (or has it?) after Saturday’s debacle for the Huskers, where did it all go wrong? There’s a lot of finger pointing and rightfully so after such a performance. A young defense was undressed before an 11 a.m. ESPN audience and a Minnesota team clinched a bowl appearance for the second straight season. Nebraska and Minnesota have had a long, strange history since their first meeting in 1900. Saturday’s installment could reverberate for quite a while for both programs, but for the worse in Lincoln as a team now has to go back to the drawing board.
Ok, so if that seems a bit heavy, let’s get back to the game and look at how Nebraska was on the short end of the stick. Things were looking up for Nebraska as they took at 10-0 lead early in the first quarter after the Huskers marched down the field with Martinez back at quarterback. A 42-yard hook up to Kenny Bell put Nebraska at the Minnesota 2 and Imani Cross scored on the very next play to give the Huskers a 7-0 lead. Three and out for the Gophers on the next possession and a 45-yard field goal from Pat Smith gave Nebraska 10-0 lead with 7:06 left in the opening quarter. The next 52 minutes and change would prove to be more than excruciating for Nebraska fans and a team that had seemingly turned the ship around after the UCLA defeat.
But Minnesota hung in, absorbed the early body blow, and countered with haymakers of their own as the Gophers marched 75 yards in 13 plays, capped off by Mitch Leidner’s 1-yard touchdown run with just 18 seconds to play in the first quarter. On that drive, Minnesota passed the ball only one time, and ran it right down Nebraska’s throat. That drive marked the beginning of the end and let the world know that the Gophers were going to whip the Huskers up front with a variety of counters, motion, jet sweeps, and hard-nosed football. Basically, what we’d heard all week that Nebraska was expecting the Gophers to do.
The offense sputtered in the second quarter, with the passing game unable to move the ball. Two runs from Ameer Abdullah got Nebraska a first down on the ensuing drive, but two incompletions and a pass to Quincy Enunwa stopped the drive short and forced a punt. Minnesota would sputter on their next drive, but eventually took the lead on a 33-yard pass from Philip Nelson to Derrick Engel with 6:21 left before halftime at 14-10. The teams traded field goals and it was 17-13 after 30 minutes.
Heading into the tunnel, Bo Pelini seemed assured that his team would make the necessary adjustments and right the ship in the second half. But as we saw, Minnesota continued to pound Nebraska up front and harass Martinez and disrupt Nebraska’s offense for the final two quarters. Nebraska couldn’t block Ra’Shede Hageman, as the potential first rounder in the 2014 NFL draft sacked Martinez once and added two more tackles for loss--if it weren’t for two facemask penalties he would have added to those totals. Losing Spencer Long was a tough blow, but it’s apparent the loss may be larger than previously thought.
Minnesota dominated the third quarter. Their initial drive went three and out, but Nebraska did the Gophers a favor by going away from their bread and butter as a 17-13 lead increased to 27-13 near the end of the quarter. Abdullah ran one time in Nebraska’s first six plays of the third quarter, with five passes sprinkled in. The result? Two completions for five yards in five attempts, two three-and-outs, and a bizarre exit from the running game which would see the Huskers average over six yards per carry on the afternoon. Cobb kept pounding, Nelson added a 1-yard touchdown run, and the Huskers couldn’t recover. Nebraska did answer with an eight play, 72 yard drive capped off by a three-yard touchdown pass from Martinez to Sam Cotton as the quarter neared its end, but the damage was done.
Nebraska had their chance to tie the game on the following Husker drive, but were stopped short of the end zone and settled for Pat Smith’s third field goal of the game, a 38-yarder with just over nine minutes to go. But Minnesota didn’t flinch, as it eventually won the field position game and grinded out the win after Nelson’s 1-yard touchdown run with 48 seconds to go put the nail in the Husker coffin. A Martinez interception snuffed out any very late chance for heroics and the upset was complete.
The Huskers had two weeks to prepare for a Minnesota offense that ranked 111th in the country in total offense per game. It could have had ten weeks and the outcome might not have been any different, as Minnesota ran for 271 yards on 54 attempts in addition to 159 yards passing. Nebraska was outgained 430-328, had an eleven-minute plus deficit in time of possession, and was minus-2 in the turnover department. To say this was a total team loss would be an understatement, whether it’s on the offense or the defense. For grading purposes, this will not be pretty…
Other than the two touchdown drives, Nebraska struggled for the most part on offense. Martinez looked predictably rusty in a 16-of-30 day for 139 yards with one touchdown and one interception. He wasn’t helped by at least four dropped passes on the day either from wide receivers that have shown better hands in the past. It just never seemed like there was much rhythm throwing the ball, whether it was with Martinez and his receivers or from the offensive line. Hageman proved to be quite menacing and disruptive to say the least and the Huskers missed Long at the guard position.
The running game was about as good as it usually is. Abdullah carried 19 times for 165 yards as he pushes closer to 1,000 yards for the season, but his fumble led to a Minnesota field goal in the second quarter. Cross only had two carries on the day with one resulting in a two-yard touchdown run. When Nebraska needed a comeback drive to start the second half, they passed five times in their first six plays…resulting in two three-and-outs.
Other than Abdullah, there wasn’t much explosion or playmaking. Martinez did have a 35-yard run to set up Nebraska’s second touchdown of the day. The offense seemed lost, unsure of what to do which was none more evident than in the fourth quarter when the Huskers had to burn a timeout and were then called for a delay of game before Pat Smith’s final field goal of the game. Rust from being off two weeks? Inexcusable. The offense gets a D+ and probably worse if not for Abdullah.
A 100 yard rusher. A seldom used tight end with a career day receiving. No turnovers forced. Nearly 300 yards rushing allowed. If you found anything good about Nebraska’s defense on Saturday, it would take unique and thorough examination. But since that’s what I do, let’s hang our hat on the fact that the Minnesota passing game was a paltry 8-of-17 for 159 yards. Not world beating by any stretch.
Snark aside, that’s the only thing that worked out for Nebraska’s defense. Or was it? This was a Minnesota team boasting one of the more anemic offenses in the country, let alone the Big Ten. With two weeks to prepare for a strong Gophers running game that would clearly be the focus, Nebraska knew what was coming and it couldn’t stop it. 16 of Minnesota’s 23 first downs came on the ground. Linebackers were in the wrong holes. Tight ends were left running free. Cut back lanes were wide open all game long.
From a yards standpoint, this might not have been Nebraska’s worst defensive performance of the season, but the facts are Nebraska got abused by a subpar offense. Minnesota’s play calling was perfect—the Gophers knew where to hit Nebraska and the Huskers had no answer. Pretty easy, the Blackshirts get a resounding F.
The Special Teams
Pat Smith answered the question as to whom would kick in the big spots for Nebraska going forward. Three field goals in three attempts—hard to argue with that. Sam Foltz had a mixed day punting, with five punts for a 42.6 yard average, but a couple of bad punts allowed for short fields for the Gophers and they took advantage with two touchdowns, including the game clincher.
Kickoff coverage and kick returns were serviceable. Foltz wasn’t his usual self for the entire game, but he’s still a weapon in Nebraska’s special teams arsenal. I’m not sure it would have mattered, however. We’ll go with a B-.
Most of the blame, and rightfully so, will go on the defense. Loading the box, run blitzes, none of it really mattered when it came time to stopping Minnesota’s running game. Cobb joins Shaun Wick, Jordon James, and Zach Zenner as running backs to have topped the 100 yard mark against Nebraska in 2013. Ten different running backs went over the century mark against Nebraska last year, so with five games left in the regular season, the 2013 Huskers are well on pace to allow similar numbers this year. Well-seasoned seniors or green freshmen and sophomores seem to make little difference as of late when it comes to Nebraska stopping the run. The defense is in shambles and gone is the little confidence that may have been acquired after wins over Illinois and Purdue to start Big Ten play.
This isn’t even touching the quarterback situation. We were told by Tim Beck that the healthiest quarterback that gave the team the best chance to win would play against Minnesota and that both Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg would likely see the field at some point. After the game, Martinez revealed that it wasn’t a turf toe injury that had slowed him down, rather two toes that may have been fractured since the Wyoming game. That’s not even broaching the subject of a shoulder injury that Martinez revealed in postgame interviews. Either Pelini believes a less than healthy Martinez is still the best option versus an Armstrong/Kellogg collaboration, or the staff believed Martinez was at 100 percent and trusted his word. Either way, this is an enormous problem that unfortunately has happened before.
Nebraska overlooked a team yet again and it came back to bite them. The days of rolling past teams on your schedule because you’re a blue blood and supposed to win are over, especially when your team is not fundamentally sound nor tough enough to win in the trenches as it was in years past. You can throw all the money you want behind an athletic program, but when you don’t get the athletes or the coaching staff to buy in and perform to their abilities, it means very, very little. Winning because you’re Nebraska is no longer going to win many games, whether it’s in the Big Ten or Big XII.
Can it be fixed this season? You heard in postgame interviews that it’s time for Nebraska to win out as it did last season with six games to go. Last season saw pieces fall into place for Nebraska with four impressive comebacks, but it would be disingenuous to suggest a similar route to Indianapolis would work again. Until this team gets tougher and plays with a chip on its shoulder, games similar to Saturday will continue to dot the landscape. The Wisconsin tape helped Minnesota and you’d better believe more teams will clamor to watch both of those game films going forward against the Huskers.
Now is a time for leadership on both sides of the ball and on the sidelines. It needs to be found quickly, to not only salvage a season, but potentially careers at Nebraska when it comes to the coaching staff. The alarm bells are sounding. The season and potentially more is on the line. Who will answer with five games to go?