MINNEAPOLIS — In the final minutes of Minnesota's 34-23 shucking of the Huskers, about 15,000 Nebraska fans hoping to enjoy an easy win in TCF Bank Stadium grew quiet as the Gophers inexorably pushed toward a final touchdown.
But one NU fan — a woman dressed in black, including the head warmer and the nail polish — screamed support from the front row of the east end zone as the Huskers' defense, gas tank on empty, stood 20 yards away.
“Come on Nebraska!” she yelled, alternating it with “Go Big Red!”
“Two tight ends, again and again!” yelled one towel-waving, Twins-cap-wearing Gopher fan inches from her. “Put an end to this misery!” yelled another Minnesota homer further down the row, referencing 16 straight losses to NU.
The Gophers pushed to the Husker 4. Then the 2. In exasperation and frustration, the Husker fan said, not quite as loudly, “This is Minnesota!”
Yes, Minnesota. Beating Nebraska at its own game — the run game — and beating Nebraska like a drum, to the beat of five yards, six yards, seven yards, eight, tight ends by the bushel, a fullback to lead, up one side of the field and down the other. The Gophers rushed for 271 yards, racked up 430 overall and held NU's imploding offense to 328 despite the return of starting quarterback Taylor Martinez.
“I'm talking basic football,” coach Bo Pelini said emphatically. “Basic football that we couldn't execute — and we didn't execute.”
“There's no real way to mask it or spin it,” defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.
“Wooooo!” yelled Minnesota students rushing the field after the game. They ran to the middle and put Goldy on their shoulders. A cheerleader, too. They yelled, “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” in honor of coach Jerry Kill, who took a leave of absence in early October to manage and treat his epilepsy.
Kill still watched the game from the coaches' box. He got a bird's-eye view of his team falling behind 10-0 before Minnesota's offense churned Nebraska's young, inexperienced defense into Blackshirt butter.
The Gophers shifted linemen and tight ends before nearly every play and often sent a wide receiver in the same jet sweep motion that baffled the Huskers against Wisconsin in last year's Big Ten championship. This allowed quarterbacks Philip Nelson and Mitch Leidner to either hand the ball off on the sweep, give it to big back David Cobb — who gained 138 yards — keep the ball to run, or bootleg and throw to one of two giant tight ends.
“It doesn't take a genius to see that they studied the Wisconsin championship game film a ton,” defensive backs coach Terry Joseph said.
Said linebacker David Santos: “They were doing a lot of new things. A lot of speed motion in the first half. They came out with some trick plays.”
Defensive end Avery Moss saw it differently.
“They ran the same plays — power and belly — every time,” he said. “Hard for us to stop it. It was frustrating.”
Minnesota (6-2 overall, 2-2 in the Big Ten) thus dined on the power football buffet and took seconds. Though NU starting linebackers Santos, Zaire Anderson and Jared Afalava combined for 28 tackles, they often didn't wrestle Cobb or the quarterbacks to the ground right away. They struggled to get off blocks while tracking the shifts and motions.
“They out-physicaled us,” Pelini said. “That's the most disappointing thing that I saw. ... You can't hit a guy at the line of scrimmage, and, the next you know, it's second-and-5.”
The Gophers' first touchdown drive was a 13-play, 75-yard brute that cut NU's lead to 10-7 at the end of the first quarter. Minnesota went ahead 14-10 on a 33-yard, fourth-and-10 touchdown pass from Nelson to Derrick Engel. The Gophers took a 24-13 lead early in the second half after a poor Sam Foltz punt and a Husker face mask penalty gave them a short field for a five-play, 38-yard touchdown drive. Minnesota then had an 11-play, 60-yard drive that ended in a field goal and a 27-13 lead.
Through this stretch, Nebraska (5-2, 2-1) foundered on offense.
Martinez struggled to find open receivers against a Gopher defense that stacked the box to stuff the run. After a five-week, three-game layoff, he completed 16 of 30 passes for 139 yards, one touchdown and one interception. After the game he revealed he has a different, more severe injury to the second and third toes on his left foot instead of the turf toe problem Pelini said it was.
NU ran 30 times for 189 yards, with Ameer Abdullah (165) making hay on perimeter option plays, but the Huskers rarely tested the teeth of Minnesota's defense. Pelini, Martinez and offensive coordinator Tim Beck all agreed that the Gophers' defense dictated that Nebraska throw the ball. Martinez threw for 308 yards last year in a 38-14 win over Minnesota, and many of the plays Beck called then he appeared to call again Saturday. They didn't work as well. Why?
“I can't tell you,” Martinez said. Asked again, he said, “We'll just go to the next question.”
Martinez said he threw the ball “pretty good.” He said he allowed the coaches to tell others he had a turf toe injury because it was “simpler.” He said he's not 100 percent healthy, but getting closer.
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Though Beck had wanted to insert one of two backups — Tommy Armstrong or Ron Kellogg — in the first half, he decided against it. Pelini said Martinez's play was “the least of our problems.” Later in his press conference, Pelini staunchly defended his fifth-year senior.
“Let's not go there and act like Taylor Martinez lost this football game for us,” he said. “Our problems today were far beyond who our quarterback was.”
Martinez led consecutive drives in the second half that cut Minnesota's lead to 27-23, and NU took over again at the 5:50 mark of the fourth quarter with a chance to take the lead. Starting from the 9, Abdullah had a 1-yard run, Martinez misfired to Quincy Enunwa and Martinez was sacked for a 3-yard loss. Foltz chunked a 27-yard punt and Minnesota ground out a final touchdown to seal the win.
Goldy and his gang rushed the field. Minnesota acting head coach and defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys received three bear hugs in the tunnel alone. Nebraska's players walked quietly through the halls outside their locker room. Few stopped to talk.
Enunwa did, and as he ate a cookie, he explained that NU's offense hadn't had a great week of practice, and Beck pulled him aside to talk about it. Enunwa said the bad week carried over, with “too many guys who thought we were going to win the game and go on to next week.”
Minnesota, he agreed, had different ideas.
“They came hard, they did exactly what they said they were going to do: They gave us few possessions, held the ball and ran it down our throat,” Enunwa said.
Pelini pointed to a lack of execution and mental discipline.
“When you go there and think you can just roll it out and play? Nobody can do that,” he said. “You have to have respect for this game. We talked about it last night. We talked about it all week. I've been around this game long enough to know: We didn't have the type of focus that it takes to play real great football.”
Papuchis wanted to re-examine the prep for the Gophers.
“Twenty-four hours ago, I felt pretty good about our preparation,” he said. “Obviously, after watching that, I don't feel good about anything that we did.”
This is Nebraska: Likely needing to win out, again, to advance to Indianapolis for the Big Ten championship. October strikes again. Pelini's never made it through the month without a loss.
“It hurts,” Moss said. “We want to take the Big Ten and do something else other than the Capital One Bowl, you know? But setbacks like this keep happening.”
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Video: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini after the game:
Video: Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez after the game:
Video: Postgame analysis with Sam McKewon: