The spirit of the rule is to keep a team from benefiting from its own mistake. But the football doesn't always bounce the way the rule intends.
That's why Aaron Green's forward fumble turned a broken play into a first down that broke the spirit of the Gophers defense.
On fourth-and-1 from the Gophers 13 midway through the first quarter, Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez rolled left, then pitched to Green. The ball bounced off Green's fingers and rolled out of bounds at the 11, just ahead of the first-down marker.
The Gophers, trailing only 3-0 at the time, began celebrating their apparent squelching of a Nebraska drive. But the officials huddled, then awarded the Cornhuskers a first down.
"What we had was a backward pass. The running back never controlled the ball. Therefore, it continues to be a backward pass -- it was muffed, which is touching the ball but not controlling it," referee Todd Geerlings explained after the game. "Rule 72-4A, page 72 of the NCAA Rulebook, states: 'When a backwards pass goes out of bounds between the goal lines, the ball belongs to the passing team at the out-of-bounds spot.' "
The Gophers sideline went crazy, and coach Jerry Kill conferred with the officials for more than a minute. "I said, 'How can you reward a fumble?' He goes, 'You're right, Coach, but that's the rule,' " Kill said. "And he's right."
Still, it was a crushing blow to the Gophers defense, which had already held the Huskers to a field goal on their first possession. Nebraska reached the end zone two plays later, on a 10-yard pass from Martinez to Tyler Legate.
"We thought we had them stopped. That was a critical play, mentally," Kill said.Baby steps
Well, it was an improvement.
Hard to imagine the Gophers consider Saturday's 41-14 drubbing by Nebraska anything but another disaster in a 1-6 season, but technically, the 27-point defeat was their best showing against the Huskers in more than four decades.
Not since a 35-10 loss to the Huskers in 1970 in long-gone Memorial Stadium had the Gophers stayed so close to Nebraska, nine meetings ago. And the 14 points? The last time Minnesota managed so many was in a 42-14 loss, also at home in 1969.Not so special
Suddenly, the Gophers have special-teams problems.
Their kickoff-return team, which ranked sixth in the Big Ten during the season's first half, encountered lots of problems Saturday, starting with the opening kick of the game. Duane Bennett dropped the ball on the goal line, and though he quickly picked it up, he managed to get only to the 11.
On another kickoff, Bennett collided with his own blocker, Chase Haviland, preventing a long run. And the Gophers were penalized for holding on back-to-back kickoffs in the second quarter, costing them field position.
Throw in a second consecutive off game for punter Dan Orseske -- he averaged 33.2 yards on six punts, including 23- and 29-yard kicks in the first quarter -- and the Gophers got little benefit from their special-teams unit, which had played relatively well until now.
One more concern: The Gophers were flagged twice for personal fouls in the fourth quarter, one on a Marcus Jones kickoff return -- officials ruled the freshman had taunted his tackler by flipping the football at him, Kill said -- and one on offensive lineman Ed Olson, for colliding with a Nebraska linebacker after the whistle.
"Those things will be addressed," Kill said of the penalties.
One streak ends
Nebraska beat the Gophers for the 15th time in a row Saturday, but the Gophers at least managed to put an end to another streak: 145 consecutive points scored by the Cornhuskers:
1984: Nebraska scored final seven points in 38-7 victory over Gophers (7).
1989: Nebraska 48, Gophers 0 (55).
1990: Nebraska 56, Gophers 0 (111).
2011: Nebraska led 34-0 at halftime (145).