Gophers fans were slow to rush the field Saturday afternoon, as if they still couldn’t believe their eyes, but the first signature victory of the Jerry Kill era was finally here.
The Gophers had lost 16 consecutive games to Nebraska. They hadn’t defeated the Cornhuskers since 1960 — hadn’t even held the lead against them since 1969 — so the disbelief was understandable.
When Philip Nelson plowed ahead for his second rushing touchdown of the day with 48 seconds remaining, it was basically over. The final seconds ticked off the clock, the Gophers players began celebrating the 34-23 victory, and after a surprising pause, the field at TCF Bank Stadium was covered with fans.
The victory made the Gophers (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) bowl eligible, but with four regular-season games remaining, they have bigger goals.
“We’re starting to believe, and that’s really all that needs to be said right now,” Nelson said. “We have the confidence rolling from week to week, and we’re finally starting to realize how good we can be.”
The 25th-ranked Cornhuskers (5-2, 2-1) entered the game as 10-point favorites and jumped to a 10-0 lead, but the Gophers scored the next 17 points and took a 17-13 lead into halftime.
Nebraska senior quarterback Taylor Martinez, who hadn’t played since Sept. 14 because of a foot injury, tried to lead a second-half comeback but couldn’t pull it off. He finished with just 16 yards rushing and completed 16 of 30 passes for 139 yards.
“I think you could see it on some of his throws that he wasn’t quite where he would normally be,” Gophers acting head coach Tracy Claeys said.
Claeys called the defensive plays from the sideline for the second consecutive game, as Kill watched from the press box coaching booth in an advisory role. Claeys said Kill gave the pregame and halftime pep talks to the players.
“The way that [Kill] can inspire us without even being down there, it’s unbelievable,” Gophers senior Brock Vereen said.
Mitch Leidner started at quarterback for the Gophers and led a touchdown drive that trimmed Nebraska’s lead to 10-7. But after the Gophers punted on their next drive, they turned the quarterback duties over to Nelson for the rest of the game.
Nelson’s first drive ended with the go-ahead touchdown. On fourth-and-10 from Nebraska’s 33, he threw toward the end zone, and senior receiver Derrick Engel made a leaping fingertip grab for a touchdown.
“At first I thought it was going to be overthrown, but it hung in the air,” Engel said. “So I put my hands up, and the next thing I knew, it was a touchdown.”
The Gophers kept their momentum going in the second half, relying heavily on junior running back David Cobb, who finished with 31 carries for a career-high 138 yards. A 1-yard touchdown run by Nelson and a 45-yard field goal by Chris Hawthorne stretched Minnesota’s lead to 27-13 late in the third quarter.
Nebraska came back with its best second-half drive, which ended when Martinez hit tight end Sam Cotton with a 3-yard touchdown pass. Pat Smith’s 37-yard field goal trimmed the lead to 27-23, and Nebraska got the ball back with 5:50 remaining.
“Not one time did the kids panic,” Claeys said. “It’s all about confidence. I couldn’t be prouder of them.”
When Martez Shabazz and Theiren Cockran combined to sack Martinez on third down, Nebraska had to punt. And when Sam Foltz shanked the 27-yard punt out of bounds, the Gophers took over at the Nebraska 34.
The Gophers ate up most of the remaining clock on their next drive, and Nelson capped it with another 1-yard touchdown run. At that point, the celebration was on.
It was the Gophers’ first victory over a ranked opponent since they knocked off No. 24 Iowa in 2010. But this was perhaps Minnesota’s biggest win since 2005, when it won at No. 21 Michigan 23-20, under Glen Mason.
Last year, the Gophers didn’t become bowl-eligible until Nov. 10, when they won at Illinois.
“I’ll tell you, you don’t sigh and you don’t celebrate,” Claeys said. “You get bowl-eligible in October, you reset your goals a heck of a lot higher. We told the kids, ‘We’ve got four Big Ten games left, so we’ve got a lot left we can accomplish.
“We’re playing very confident right now, and they have to learn now how to handle the success. … Last year, we got our sixth win later in the year, with two games left, and it was kind of a celebration and a letdown. That will not happen this year.”