LINCOLN, Neb – The Gophers had been through it all before, playing well enough to get coach Tracy Claeys his first signature win, only to squander the game late.
It happened Oct. 1 with a last-minute blown lead in their overtime loss at No. 10 Penn State. The next week, the Gophers gave up a late touchdown and suffered a seven-point home loss to Iowa.
Close, excruciating losses have become this team’s trademark, and it happened again Saturday night, ending a four-game winning streak.
The Gophers offense went silent in the second half, as they blew a seven-point lead in a 24-17 loss to No. 19 Nebraska before an announced crowd of 90,456 at Memorial Stadium.
“We have a great team, but we have to learn how to finish,” senior Drew Wolitarsky said. “And that means coming out of halftime, bringing that same focus that we brought in the first half.”
The loss dropped the Gophers (7-3, 4-3 Big Ten) one game behind No. 7 Wisconsin and Nebraska, who are tied for first place in the Big Ten West.
Nebraska held Minnesota’s red-hot ground game to a mere 85 rushing yards, which threw a wrench into everything. Rodney Smith, who ran for 55 yards in the first half, putting him over the 1,000 mark for the season, had four second-half carries for minus-2 yards.
After outscoring Nebraska 17-10 in the first half, the Gophers put up just 93 yards — total — in their scoreless second half. Meanwhile Tommy Armstrong Jr., and the Cornhuskers sliced through the Gophers defense for 237 second-half yards.
“We just didn’t block and tackle very well,” Claeys said.
Armstrong returned after being knocked unconscious in last week’s 62-3 loss at No. 5 Ohio State and delivered three touchdowns — two passes and one run.
He suffered two second-half injuries. He sprained his left ankle and left the game for a few moments. Then, he strained a hamstring on his 13-yard touchdown run that gave Nebraska its 24-17 lead with 7 minutes, 17 seconds remaining.
After that, Armstrong didn’t return. Ryker Fyfe finished out the game.
“You all know Tommy,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “You’ve seen him for years, and he is very, very competitive and doesn’t ever like to come out of the game, which I really admire about him.”
The Gophers had two chances to tie it after Armstrong’s go-ahead touchdown run. Their first drive went: Smith rush for no gain, Mitch Leidner rush for 5 yards, Leidner pass to Smith for 4 yards. On fourth-and-1 from their own 25, they punted.
Minnesota got the ball back at its own 27 with 2:58 and one timeout remaining.
After that, the Gophers didn’t run the ball once. Leidner completed four of six passes for 41 yards, setting up a first down from the Nebraska 17 with 1:34 left. Leidner looked for Wolitarsky on a 10-yard curl route, but the pass was tipped by safety Aaron Williams and intercepted by junior Kieron Williams.
“It’s rough how those things go, I guess, because you feel like you can do anything as you’re making your way down the field,” Leidner said. “Completing a few balls and guys making plays, and then something like that happens where a [safety] makes a great play on the ball and tips it up. So it’s definitely a throw I want back, but at the same time, it’s a good learning experience for us.”
Nebraska (8-2, 5-2) ran out the clock from there, having bounced back after consecutive losses at Wisconsin and Ohio State. The Cornhuskers have now won 19 consecutive home night games since their last such loss in 2008.
For the season, Nebraska has outscored opponents 115-20 in the fourth quarter.
“They are a good football team; I think we’re a good football team,” Claeys said. “They played better in the second half than we did, and they won.”
The Gophers led 17-10 at halftime after controlling the ball for 18:58 in the first half. Nebraska’s 354th consecutive sellout crowd was subdued.
But the Cornhuskers got the ball to start the second half and went 79 yards in 11 plays to tie the score. Armstrong found Terrell Newby on a screen pass, and Newby took the ball to the sideline, slipping two tackles for a 31-yard touchdown.
Short screen passes wound up being the Gophers’ demise
“All year long we’ve been able to tackle that, and if you tackle that, people quit doing it,” Claeys said. “So we did a bad job of tackling on the perimeter.”