MINNEAPOLIS — Before a cathartic pick six triggered Big Red grins, high-fives and “Husker Power!” chants on one side of TCF Bank Stadium, Nebraska’s football team faced a long field and an opportunity to define itself.
“We had to get out of a deep, deep hole,” offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said, putting a bear hug on symbolism. He could have been talking about Nebraska starting a third-quarter drive at its own 1, or the first 2-4 start in more than 50 years.
The Huskers’ answer — a 10-play, 99-yard march through what had been one of the Big Ten’s top defenses — underlined NU’s 48-25 win over Minnesota. Maybe this game is an isolated oasis in a season that continues to be grim. But if Saturday’s win is the start of something — if it triggers a second-half surge — circle that drive in red ink.
The drive took nearly six minutes and actually accounted for 109 yards, since it included an NU holding penalty. It gave Nebraska a 17-point cushion that would grow to 24 early in the fourth quarter, shrink briefly to 13, and balloon to the final margin by game’s end thanks to Josh Kalu’s 41-yard interception return for a score.
Kalu’s play left NU’s sideline in a collective exhale. The tension that gathers in the shoulders eased a bit. Coaches shook the hands of players, who felt like they could cut up a little. Nebraska fans lined the west side of the stadium — an estimated 10,000 made the trip — and slapped hands. Coach Mike Riley, in a red pullover sweatshirt, got a few of his own.
“It’s relief — but it’s also excitement,” Riley said in his postgame press conference.
And the 99-yard drive?
“That was really a thing of beauty,” Riley said, adding seconds later, “there was a lot of good football on that drive.”
It had some grit when Nebraska used two runs to blast out from the shadow of its own goalposts and the Minnesota student section. It had some moxie when quarterback Tommy Armstrong delivered a 5-yard pass to Jordan Westerkamp for the initial first down. It had two big catches from Alonzo Moore. It had a quarterback keeper for 25 yards. And it had deception, when nine players on Nebraska’s side seemed to go left, but Armstrong and tight end Cethan Carter went right. Armstrong threw to Carter, who caught the ball, turned and stretched to the pylon for a 10-yard touchdown.
Langsdorf, who exhorted his offense to finish off the drive, called it “a big one.”
“It’s demoralizing if you can do it to another defense,” he said. “They just have you pinned and feeling good, and all of a sudden you turn it around and score.”
Armstrong called it “important,” adding that the offensive line had a “sense of urgency” on the march, which encompassed the middle part of the third quarter.
“We made plays when we needed to, executed when we needed to and kept plays alive on third down,” Armstrong said.
That was true of Nebraska’s offense all game. Against a defense ranked No. 21 in yards allowed per game, NU gained 464 — the most Minnesota has allowed this season and the second-most since November 2013. The Huskers converted 7 of 13 third downs and punted just twice.
When Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner dragged the Huskers’ pass defense through the mud in the first half for two easy touchdowns, the offense answered both scores. First, Terrell Newby blasted 69 yards for a touchdown through a big hole made by center Ryne Reeves and right guard Chongo Kondolo. Later, after Minnesota had sliced the NU lead to 17-14 in the second quarter, the Huskers had an eight-play, 75-yard touchdown march, capped by a Newby run.
NU led 24-14 at halftime, which wasn’t much different from a 10-0 halftime lead at Illinois or a 14-7 halftime lead over Wisconsin. The Huskers can handle first halves.
On Saturday, in front of 54,062 fans, Nebraska (3-4 overall, 1-2 in the Big Ten) showed it can handle, at least for one week, the final two quarters.
NU forced two Minnesota punts in the third quarter and scored touchdowns after each of them. After the 99-yard drive, which quieted the crowd, a 59-yard march — capped by wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El tipping a pass to himself for a 14-yard touchdown — sent much of the Gophers’ student section heading for the exits.
Surely, at 38-14, the Huskers could coast home.
Not quite. Leidner — who threw for a career-high 301 yards, often on easy throws to open receivers underneath coverage — answered with a touchdown drive of his own, cutting NU’s lead to 38-22. Minnesota (4-3, 1-2) forced a punt and drove down for a field goal. NU led 38-25 with 6:39 left.
“It has just a hint there in the fourth quarter of maybe this thing getting close,” Riley said.
But the Huskers recovered an onside kick, and got a crucial third-down conversion when Jordan Westerkamp came down with a 27-yard grab on a go route. That set up a Drew Brown field goal.
Finally, catharsis: On Minnesota’s ensuing drive, Kalu picked off Leidner and weaved through the Gophers for a score.
“For those guys, it’s confidence,” said defensive coordinator Mark Banker, whose front seven has been decimated by injuries but still gave up just 65 rushing yards to a team that averages 172 per game.
After a month of tight squeezes — remember, Nebraska’s 36-28 win over Southern Mississippi was no easy breather — the Huskers put a win in the bag with room to spare. They also might have put themselves on a better track for a bowl game and the kind of strong finish that redeems several games frittered away with mistakes or foolishness.
For Riley, it was proof that, despite the struggles, his team’s still in the fight.
“They answered the bell. They came back, after all those games, and they stayed together as a team, played hard and won,” he said. “Hopefully they keep that going, but I’m really proud of them for that, because that’s not easy for anybody.”
Said Banker: “Any sort of success, you can build on. It’s tough getting hit over the head with a hammer.”
Defensive tackle Vincent Valentine said Nebraska’s locker room was “crazy” — in a good way. Valentine has had his own tough season, missing several games with ankle injuries and bone bruises, but he was pleased to see Riley win his first league game.
“If it’s been tough on us, then it’s really been real tough on him,” Valentine said. “Criticism in the media and everything. But Coach Riley keeps his head on straight — like he wants us to.”
|Yards per carry||2.5||5.2|
Nebraska is 25-32 all-time against Minnesota.
|South Alabama||Sept. 12|
|Miami (FL)||Sept. 19|
|Southern Miss||Sept. 26|
|Michigan State||Nov. 7|
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