In 2013, Gophers fans stormed the field after their win over Nebraska. Last year, their come-from-behind victory in Lincoln set up a one-game showdown with Wisconsin for the Big Ten West title.
Saturday looked and felt so much different for the Gophers. Nebraska week didn’t make their season this time. It reminded them how painful this fall has been.
With the Gophers defense suddenly hapless, Nebraska shook off its recent slump, overpowering Minnesota for a 48-25 victory before an announced sellout crowd of 54,062 at TCF Bank Stadium.
The Gophers (4-3, 1-2 Big Ten) realize their division title hopes now look slim, and getting the two more victories they need for bowl eligibility could be dicey against Michigan, Ohio State, Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin.
“It’s frustrating, looking at the goals we set earlier in the season and looking at where we are now,” quarterback Mitch Leidner said. “But it’s part of the game.”
Nebraska (3-4, 1-2) entered the week in a serious rut. The Cornhuskers had led or tied each of their first six games with 11 seconds remaining yet still suffered four losses. The Huskers offense had managed 292 yards in a loss at Illinois and 325 in a loss to Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, defense had been the Gophers’ strength. The Gophers had held opponents to an average of 306.2 yards per game.
But with the sun glistening over Minneapolis, Nebraska didn’t have to punt in the first half, as it racked up 259 yards, taking a 24-14 lead.
The Huskers finished with 464 yards, and the 48 points were the most allowed by the Gophers since their 58-0 loss to Michigan four years ago.
The Gophers had cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Scott Ekpe back from their injuries, but two starting linebackers — Cody Poock and De’Vondre Campbell — did not play defense in the first half. Campbell played special teams and entered at linebacker in the second half.
“Injuries shouldn’t be a factor at all,” cornerback Eric Murray said. “That’s just an excuse.”
Trailing by 14 points early in the third quarter, Gophers punter Peter Mortell pinned Nebraska at its 1-yard line. Pressed up against the student section, the Cornhuskers broke the Gophers’ will.
Imani Cross pushed the pile for 7 yards on second-and-9 from the 2-yard line. Tommy Armstrong Jr. took over from there, completing six consecutive passes and adding a 25-yard run on the 99-yard touchdown drive.
“From a defensive side of the ball, the kids get tired, and we didn’t have anybody else to go to,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said, referencing the team’s injuries. “So I think [that drive] took a lot out of us, no question.”
After another Gophers punt, Armstrong hit De’Mornay Pierson-El for a 15-yard touchdown. Pierson-El tipped the ball to himself over Boddy-Calhoun. That was payback for last year, when Boddy-Calhoun stripped the ball from Pierson-El at the 2-yard line, preserving the four-point triumph.
If that loss crushed Nebraska fans, it was only a preview of the heartbreak they would feel this year in losses to BYU, Miami (Fla.), Illinois and Wisconsin. The Huskers tried to ensure this would be an ending first-year coach Mike Riley didn’t have to sweat.
But after falling behind 38-14 in the fourth quarter, the Gophers still made things interesting for a while.
Leidner went 26-for-40 for a career-high 301 yards with two late interceptions. His 1-yard sneak and two-point conversion pass to KJ Maye trimmed Nebraska’s lead to 16 points with 11:52 remaining.
Armstrong threw three incomplete passes on its next drive, giving the Gophers the ball back only 62 seconds later. They drove down the field again, but a holding penalty helped stall their drive.
On fourth-and-15 from the Nebraska 21-yard line, Kill sent Ryan Santoso in for a 39-yard field goal, which trimmed the lead to 13 points with 6:49 remaining.
“We felt that if we get it there, we can get an onside kick, and we’ve done that before,” Kill said. “So that is a decision we made … and you can put it on me.”
Nebraska recovered Andrew Harte’s onside kick and came right back with a field goal, before adding a touchdown when Joshua Kalu returned a Leidner interception for a touchdown.
“It’s a relief,” Riley said. “But it’s also excitement.”
The Gophers will have a bye next week to get healthier and examine their defense before facing Michigan at home on Halloween night.
“We’ve had probably four starters hurt on offense, same amount on defense,” receiver KJ Maye said. “It’s a perfect time to have a bye week.”