MINNEAPOLIS — Go! Go! Nebraska Athletic Director Bill Moos yelled Saturday in excitement to a long De’Mornay Pierson-El catch-and-run. This was before NU’s run defense had collapsed and the Huskers lost their starting quarterback to a severe migraine.
As the game wore on, Moos’ box of visitors — including his boss, UNL Chancellor Ronnie Green — dialed down to mild applause to chatter quiet enough that reporters could no longer hear it.
Suddenly, noise came from the box again on a fourth-down sack of Husker backup quarterback Patrick O’Brien.
Later, in the fourth quarter, a frustrated bellow erupted after a long Minnesota run.
Consider that line — and Nebraska’s 54-21 loss to the Gophers Saturday — as a stamp on the 2017 season, now inexorably headed toward a coaching change.
The Gophers took the lead on the game’s opening play — a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown by running back Rodney Smith — and thereafter shoved Nebraska’s defense into submission with 409 rushing yards — gained at a 9.1-yard-per-carry clip. Only twice during NU’s Big Ten tenure — the 2012 conference title game and the 2014 game at Wisconsin — did a Husker opponent have more.
Minnesota quarterback Demry Croft had 183 of them running the option, and Nebraska’s defense, coordinated by Bob Diaco, appeared to have no idea on how to stop it.
“The whole day was just unacceptable,” said Diaco, who said earlier this week the players didn’t know how to tackle before he started coaching them in the spring. “Spectacularly unacceptable. Terrible. Poor.”
“We had a defensive plan, and it didn’t seem to work,” defensive tackle Carlos Davis said.
“Here’s what happened: They moved the football and we couldn’t get them off the field,” coach Mike Riley said, a hint of edge in his voice, now that his team stands at 4-6 overall and 3-4 in the Big Ten.
In front of 39,933 at TCF Bank Stadium, Nebraska’s defense forced zero turnovers and a single punt. Minnesota runners — be it Croft, Smith (134 rushing yards) or Kobe McCrary (93) — either made the first NU defender miss or carried that man for extra yards. The Gophers threw four second-half passes, and even those were unnecessary, given their success on the ground and Nebraska losing quarterback Tanner Lee, who left at halftime with what Riley called an “impact migraine.”
“He does not look bad, he won’t talk badly, he is coherent, but I know he doesn’t feel good right now,” Riley said of Lee, who did not talk to the news media and left the stadium with his teammates.
O’Brien — in the most extended action of his career — completed 12 of 18 passes in the second half for 137 yards after Lee hit 13 of 18 for 174 in the first. Offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said Lee played one of his best halves, and O’Brien played well, given his experience level. O’Brien, a redshirt freshman, agreed.
“It’s my first time really ‘playing’ playing, like an actual game, so I feel like I did all right, but there’s always room for improvement,” O’Brien said.
The Huskers’ run game was effective on two early drives, but NU abandoned the ground game once it fell too far behind.
For that, blame Diaco and the defense. Both in discipline and execution, the Huskers repeatedly struggled against Minnesota’s option offense and Croft, who came into the game with just 154 yards rushing.
“It’s so simple,” linebacker Mohamed Barry said. “He has the ball, he gives or he pulls it.”
On five plays, it looked quite hard.
» On a first-quarter fourth down, the Gophers (5-5, 2-5 Big Ten) ran a shotgun speed option to the left. No defender covered the pitch back. Smith, who needed 2 yards, gained 7. Three plays later, Croft ran untouched into the end zone on a read option play.
» On Minnesota’s next drive, Croft turned a third-and-1 into a 73-yard touchdown when he kept the ball on an option, juked safety Marquel Dismuke to the ground, then ran free to the end zone. No other defenders were within 20 yards of Croft after Dismuke whiffed. Most of them collapsed on the dive back.
» The Gophers like to use jet sweeps as a curveball to their downhill running game, and Nebraska’s linebackers and defensive backs — primary tacklers on a jet sweep — struggled to track down ball carriers. On McCrary’s 11-yard touchdown run, he spun away from several Huskers who were trying to tackle with poor, off-balance technique.
» Croft bolted 64 yards on a fourth-quarter speed option play — it drew the second Moos bellow — as Husker defenders failed to nab Croft before he got to the outside crease.
What happened on these plays?
“They definitely ran more of the option stuff than we were expecting,” defensive end Ben Stille said. “Their quarterback keeping the ball was a little more than we were thinking, too. Not too much other than that.”
Riley and Barry said Croft did a good job of holding the read “until the last moment” before pulling the ball. Riley said Croft made some plays against Nebraska’s safeties — such as Dismuke — in one-on-one tackling situations.
Diaco said his game plan accounted for the play, which is a staple of Minnesota’s offense, and spread offenses at every level of American football for many years.
“We structurally had a player reasonable for the pull,” Diaco said. “And we had a hard time with it.”
It’s been a rough week for the defensive coordinator, who spent 23 minutes on Tuesday explaining why the defense shouldn’t be any better than it has been this season, using NU’s rugby-style tackling from 2016 — when Mark Banker was the defensive coordinator — as an example of poor technique. Banker fired back, calling Diaco “full of it,” and Riley himself on Thursday cracked a joke about it.
On Saturday, after the loss, Diaco said “everybody blew a gasket” when he talked about tackling. He added there’s a lot of work to be done on defense, but he’s not worried.
“Worry is the dark room where negatives become glossy prints,” Diaco said. “So. Trying not to worry.”
Defensive players suggested they still believe in Diaco and his schemes.
“He’s the leader, so you’ve got to listen to your leader and we’re going to do that, ride out the season,” Davis said.
“You have to,” Barry said. “We’re not losers, and I’m not going to think like a loser, and I’m not going to put my head down and think like a loser. I play for Nebraska and I’m a Blackshirt. Can’t think like a loser.”
Riley said he’ll be calling on the “personal pride” of players to “do the right thing” in preparing for the final two games against Penn State and Iowa.
Captain and left guard Jerald Foster affirmed Riley’s sentiment.
Foster said he thinks most of the guys in the program are on board. The ones who aren’t?
“Well, we’ll get them there,” Foster said. “That’s what leadership is. That’s when you get behind the guys who might have a little doubt, and you push them forward.”
Nebraska isn’t supposed to lose like this, Foster said. Players expect to win and know the fans expect the same.
“This is still a Nebraska team,” Foster said. “We hold that strong. I want everybody to know that we care. We know our fans care, we know our coaches care, as players we all care.”
For some Husker fans — such as the one who asked Riley if he was smiling as he left the field — the dye is cast on the Riley era. For others — such as women drinking Leinenkugel and telling players “Chin up! You’re a Husker!” — perhaps it isn’t.
Moos — and NU’s administration — will have the final say. On Saturday, it sounded almost as bad as it looked.
|Yards per carry||9.1||2.1|
Nebraska is 24-32 all-time against Minnesota.
|Arkansas State||Sept. 2|
|Northern Illinois||Sept. 16|
|Ohio State||Oct. 14|
|Penn State||Nov. 18|
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