LINCOLN — The Land of 10,000 Lakes has produced a team that can break 10,000 Husker tackles.
Nebraska had its chances. Minnesota made the plays. The Gophers won 28-24 Saturday by overcoming a 14-point halftime deficit and scrapping out one extra yard at a time, often at the expense of some Husker defender being dragged along for an unsatisfying ride.
This was no Melvin Gordon-fueled meltdown at Wisconsin, but a subtle, consistent erosion of the Huskers’ run defense. Even after Minnesota lost top running back David Cobb to an injury, it kept plowing along, especially with a zone read play in which quarterback Mitch Leidner repeatedly romped into open space against a Husker secondary that was only occasionally up for tackling him.
“They bank on you making an error,” safety Nate Gerry said. “And that’s one thing we did today.”
No argument from Husker coach Bo Pelini, who was definitely in the mood to critique the performance of a unit that gave up 281 rushing yards and 416 total yards. He called his defense’s mixture of mental errors and tackling whiffs a “bad recipe.” Pelini didn’t stop there.
“We lost because we didn’t deserve to win,” Pelini said. “We didn’t play well enough. We had too many busts. Our execution was subpar. Our tackling was horrendous.”
Of Nebraska’s total effort, Pelini said: “We beat ourselves in a lot of instances.”
Among those instances:
» Two Nebraska fumbles — both by wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El, one at the end of each half — recovered by the Gophers inside the Minnesota 15. The second occurred on Nebraska’s final drive of the game after Pierson-El caught a pass from quarterback Tommy Armstrong that wasn’t going to count because Pierson-El had stepped out of bounds before he caught it. But because he fumbled the ball away to Minnesota defensive back Briean Boddy-Calhoun at the Minnesota 2, the Gophers declined the penalty.
“When I was coming down he was right there,” Pierson-El said. “He just got the better of it. Can’t do nothing. Have to live with it.”
» A fourth-quarter NU play call that backfired so spectacularly, it left offensive coordinator Tim Beck momentarily speechless when asked about it after the game. NU led 24-21 and had second-and-1 at the Minnesota 41 when Beck dialed up a play-action deep pass from Armstrong.
Armstrong was swallowed up by pressure and sacked for a 7-yard loss.
“Ugh, just, I don’t even know how to put it in words,” Beck said. “Just was, you know, I don’t know. Probably shouldn’t have done it. Hindsight’s 20-20, you know? If we’d scored, it would have been a great call. Looked like we had them. We just didn’t have time.”
Armstrong put it a different way. “We have to execute up front and we have to set up better,” said the sophomore, who completed 12 of 19 passes for 223 yards, including an 18-yard touchdown pass to Pierson-El.
» Several key third down plays in the second half that Leidner was able to convert with his arm. The biggest was a 37-yard pass to wideout KJ Maye on Minnesota’s winning touchdown drive.
“KJ made a great play,” Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. “Mitch made a great throw.”
» A total inability to defend Minnesota’s zone read play.
The Gophers do not have a speedster of Gordon’s ilk. They have big, punishing backs, and Leidner, a 6-foot-4, 237-pounder who’d be a tight end in many programs. At Minnesota he’s a battering ram of a quarterback who ran for 111 yards and two touchdowns. The play on which he did most of his damage isn’t terribly complex — Leidner would read Nebraska’s defensive end and keep the ball if the end crashed toward the Gopher running back — but consistently flummoxed the Huskers.
Pelini, who has seen the play gut his defense before, was not pleased.
“The guy who is responsible for the quarterback has got to make a play in space,” Pelini said. “Sometimes we were blitzing right into it unblocked. And I look up and it’s second-and-6 or second-and-5. You can’t do it.”
Later: “We don’t play very smart for one. ... Inconsistency will kill you. Some of the plays we ran that they got on us, we ran two, three, four and five times in practice. It wasn’t anything new. We ran a couple of new things, but most of them were things that we covered, went over and executed. And we got into the game, and it was like we never saw it before.”
Gerry said Nebraska was well-prepared for Minnesota’s scheme, but inconsistent in its execution against it.
“We knew they’d run the quarterback — I don’t think we realized they were going to run that much with the quarterback,” Gerry said. “We were prepared for it. We saw it all in practice. But, like I said, sometimes it was just one person not self-disciplined enough to do their keys and their job. Sometimes people try to make up for other people’s mistakes, which kind of bites you.”
Those leaky yards allowed Minnesota to possess the ball for 35:03. In an era of spread, hurry-up offenses, time of possession has dropped in its importance, but controlling the clock for that long does at least one useful thing: It puts pressure on the opponent’s offense to convert during its possessions. The Huskers (8-3 overall and 4-3 in the Big Ten) didn’t do that nearly enough.
Nebraska’s offense scored 17 points. One touchdown was set up by a 73-yard improvisation pass play from Armstrong to Kenny Bell. Another touchdown was a 49-yard drive. One second-half drive — consisting of nine running plays — ended in a field goal. NU’s other touchdown came on Gerry’s 85-yard return of a Minnesota field goal blocked by Randy Gregory.
But the Huskers’ final three drives — which started at their own 25, 14 and 25 — were fruitless. The last of them resulted in Pierson-El’s second fumble with 1:19 left in the game.
Even then, with Minnesota (8-3 and 5-2) starting at its own 4 and heading into the wind, Nebraska had a chance to win with three timeouts left. The Huskers needed only to force a three-and-out. The 91,186 fans at Memorial Stadium stood and roared.
It took the Gophers two plays to gain those precious 10 yards. Donnell Kirkwood broke one tackle at the line of scrimmage, then bulled his way through senior cornerback Josh Mitchell for an 8-yard gain and a first down. Game over.
“We should have tackled him in the backfield, but we trip over our own feet, dive at his feet, whatever we tried to do (since) I just saw a guy go on the ground and he was unblocked,” Pelini said. “And they get 8 yards, 9 yards. You can sit there and look at it all day. There’s no excuse there. We have to make some changes. We didn’t play very good.”
And so senior day for a small group of memorable Huskers went sour.
Bell left after that 73-yard catch with what appeared to be a head injury. Running back Ameer Abdullah had 98 rushing yards on 20 carries, but was in no mood to talk after the game, weaving through reporters with his headphones on, not answering or not hearing a reporter’s request for an interview. He met his family at the beginning of a skywalk that connects NU’s locker room to the Huskers’ practice facility and walked with them.
Only one captain — left guard Jake Cotton — did talk, settling on a couch while reporters engulfed him. Cotton had knelt on the field after the game, trying to soak in a final moment at Memorial Stadium.
“You know, it sucks,” Cotton said. “But I’m proud of the guys. We fought to the end.”
As bitter as it might have been.
|Yards per carry||5.3||4.6|
Nebraska is 25-32 all-time against Minnesota.
|Florida Atlantic||Aug. 30|
|McNeese State||Sept. 6|
|Fresno State||Sept. 13|
|Miami (FL)||Sept. 20|
|Michigan State||Oct. 4|
Nebraska has played 14 games on Nov. 22. See them all »
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