Two games into the Big Ten schedule, this batch of Gophers looked as if it had regressed from Jerry Kill’s second group in 2012. The Gophers were pathetic for 60 minutes in a home game against Iowa, and then futile in the second half of what became a blowout loss at Michigan.
They were 4-2 at the time, but those four nonconference victories didn’t really count for anything, and the abysmal efforts vs. Iowa and Michigan made you wonder where the 2013 Gophers might get the two Big Ten victories they had landed at for three consecutive seasons.
We now have the answer: last weekend at Northwestern as 12½-point underdogs and Saturday against Nebraska, as 10-point underdogs in the on-campus stadium.
Northwestern could say that it was missing its best quarterback and running back. Nebraska had nothing to offer in the excuse department.
The current Cornhuskers, the representatives of a half-century of national football importance, came in and were absolutely mauled. The Gophers took apart Nebraska’s defense with a lethal combination of creativity and muscle, and they handled all the Nebraska offense had to offer other than the magnificent running back Ameer Abdullah.
The final was 34-23, and it is being billed as the Gophers’ first victory over Nebraska since 1960. That might deserve an asterisk, since it’s the first victory over Nebraska in the post-Devaney Era, and Cornhuskers football before and after Bob Devaney are two very different grades of seed corn.
The Gophers were 29-6-2 in their frequent meetings with Nebraska from 1900 through 1960. Devaney was hired out of Wyoming in 1962, the series resumed in 1963, and the Gophers were 0-16 in matches since then.
A couple more numbers: In the 12 games played from 1969 through 2012, Nebraska scored 568 points and the Gophers scored 86.
Everything changed Saturday — a mid-schedule perception the 2013 Gophers were going backward rather than forward, and the idea that the Gophers were destined to be pushed around into eternity by Nebraska football teams.
David Cobb ripped through Nebraska’s undersized middle for 138 yards on 31 fierce carries. Offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover broke out freshman receiver Donovahn Jones for four carries and 42 yards on the “jet sweep.’’
Philip Nelson came off the bench to throw for 152 yards, and it could have been better minus a few drops. He also broke out a previously undiscovered weapon in tight end Drew Goodger.
If anyone ever looks the part of a Goodger, it’s this lad — 6-foot-5, massive, whiskered. And yet there the big fellow was chugging his way open for three catches for 68 yards.
Was this a case of Limegrover finally recognizing Goodger’s latent explosiveness?
“No, no,’’ Goodger said. “Our coaches did a great job of scheming them up, and I was able to get lost out there a couple of times.’’
The play of the game came on the Gophers’ second possession of the third quarter. The underdogs were leading 17-13, forced a punt, and then returner Derrick Engel’s facemask was grabbed for a 15-yard penalty.
That put the Gophers at the Nebraska 38. The Gophers of the Iowa mess and the Michigan beatdown would have run a couple of read options for a few yards, misfired on a pass and punted for a touchback.
These were the new Gophers, the ones that said, “Let’s draw up some wild stuff and actually use it.’’
Limegrover sent Nelson to the huddle to call, “Shift Husker Y-Go.’’
Huh? “We don’t have a real name for it,’’ Limegrover said. “We did use the play in the bowl game last year. We wound up getting a penalty.’’
The good old Shift Husker Y-Go sent two players wide left and two wide right (including left tackle Ben Lauer), and Nebraska’s defense didn’t know if it was on foot or on a combine.
Down the middle trundled Goodger, wide open for 21 yards to the 17, and from there Cobb and Nelson took it into the end zone. And it was at that point, long-timers who had followed the Gophers through all the blowout losses to Nebraska were left saying: “They are strong enough, and they are smart enough, and doggone it, they can do this.’’
Minnesota beat Nebraska in football. Anything is now possible.
Heck, give another try at the affordable health care sign-up. It might work.