– They will kick themselves over this missed opportunity. At least that should be their reaction.

No moral victories allowed this time. Nothing about playing hard and keeping it close and never giving up.

The only emotion the Gophers should have felt Saturday night in departing Nebraska’s Memorial Stadium was bitter disappointment over their inability to finish a job that was there for the taking.

With the game up for grabs, one team played like a contender, one team didn’t.

Simple as that.

A 24-17 loss to the Cornhuskers reaffirmed a narrative of their season. The Gophers can beat bad teams, but they stub their toe against competent competition.

“We just didn’t play well enough in the second half to win the ballgame,” coach Tracy Claeys said. “Nebraska played better than we did.”

Leading at halftime, the Gophers watched their defense fall apart in the second half, their offense disappear and their senior quarterback throw a game-sealing interception during a frenetic attempt to tie the score.

The loss ended a four-game winning streak and perpetuated the notion that the Gophers merely have feasted on inferior teams this season.

Yes, the Cornhuskers were favored and had not lost a prime-time game at home since 2008, a streak of 19 consecutive wins under the lights.

But the Gophers looked like the better team for one half as the Huskers practically begged to be upset.

Nebraska was called for 12 men on the field on a punt on the game’s opening possession, allowing the Gophers to turn that gift into a touchdown.

Receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El hindered Nebraska’s first drive by receiving an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty after a long run by Tommy Armstrong Jr. to the Gophers 22. The Huskers settled for a field goal.

The Huskers also had a punt that went minus-2 yards, and another unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty late that cracked the door open.

The Gophers didn’t punish them enough for those follies.

Given one last chance, Mitch Leidner completed four passes in hurrying the offense into the red zone. But his final pass was tipped and intercepted, causing 90,000 fans dressed in red to exhale at once.

“It’s definitely a throw I want back,” Leidner said. “But at the same time, it’s a good learning experience for us.”

Claeys summed up the loss short and sweet.

“We didn’t block and didn’t tackle,” he said.

The Gophers are good enough to beat the likes of Illinois, Purdue and Rutgers with less than their best, but that won’t cut it against quality competition.

The entire second half was a deluge of sloppy tackling, dropped passes, stuffed runs and an inability to contain screen passes.

The defense gave up touchdown drives of 11 plays and 13 plays and allowed 237 yards in the second half. The offense went scoreless and managed only 93 yards.

That’s not exactly a recipe for success.

The Gophers’ desire to have better balance on offense was apparent on their opening possession when Leidner completed five of six passes for 46 yards. His only miss was a slight overthrow of Rashad Still on a deep throw down the middle.

Leidner’s passing total (180 yards) was nothing special, but he kept a few drives alive with third-down conversions. Too many drops by his receivers and lack of running game were too much to overcome.

The Huskers made stopping Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks a priority, limiting the Gophers to only 85 yards rushing. That won’t win many games.

The defense wasn’t any better after halftime. The Huskers basically did whatever they wanted. They rushed for 157 yards and passed for 217 yards, averaging 6.2 yards per play.

The Gophers defense unraveled once the Huskers stopped shooting themselves in the foot. Safeties Duke McGhee and Damarius Travis missed tackles along the sideline on a 31-yard touchdown catch by Terrell Newby on a screen pass on the first series of the half.

The Huskers left the Gophers huffing and puffing during a 13-play, 91-yard TD drive in the fourth quarter. They were completely gassed.

Their lead was gone. Players looked exhausted. The outcome seemed inevitable.

The Gophers had a chance to make a statement and prove that they are capable of winning against good teams, too.

Their response was underwhelming, to say the least.

Chip Scoggins chip.scoggins@startribune.com