Nebraska never was out of step as it dominated the Gophers -- again -- in the teams' first clash as conference rivals.
There was never any debate about whether Nebraska was a good fit for the Big Ten. These days, it's the Gophers who look like they don't belong.
They played a mistake-riddled first half once again, gave up big plays in critical moments as usual, and limped away with another blowout loss Saturday, 41-14 to their brand-new conference brethren.
Oh, goody; these teams get to play every year from now on.
It's a nice road trip for Cornhuskers fans, who filled at least a third of the seats at TCF Bank Stadium. For the Gophers, it has to be as appetizing as an annual dental exam.
Saturday's loss was Minnesota's 15th in a row to the Huskers, a habit dating to 1960, but at least the Gophers scored. A MarQueis Gray 1-yard touchdown in the third quarter ended Nebraska's streak of 145 unanswered points against them.
But the Huskers already have adopted the recent Big Ten policy of jumping on the Gophers practically during "Oh say can you see ..."
The Gophers have played three Big Ten games this season and have yet to look competitive in the first half. On Saturday, they fumbled the opening kickoff, and while returner Duane Bennett quickly scooped it up, it set the tone for their third consecutive first-half disaster. Their first-half drive chart reads: punt, punt, punt, punt, fumble for a touchdown, turnover on downs because of a fumbled snap.
It was notable only for its familiarity. The Gophers' 34-0 deficit at halftime Saturday meant they have been outscored 103-3 in the first two quarters of their first three Big Ten games.
"We need some big plays," Gophers coach Jerry Kill said after his team fell to 1-6 with its fourth loss in a row. "We need to do something to get out of the gate."
Kill mentioned Gray specifically, after the junior quarterback completed only two of eight passes for 9 yards in the first half. But it was hardly all Gray's fault, Kill said.
"A lot of our [bad] situations are more mental than physical," Kill said. Nebraska is a physical, tough football team, Kill added, but "we didn't get physically manhandled."
Maybe not, but they absorbed an awful lot of punishment. Nebraska rushed for 346 yards, an average of more than 6 yards per carry, while the Gophers managed only 132. Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez had issues, too, completing only 13 of 22 passes for 162 yards, 61 coming on an inside screen that Huskers receiver Brandon Kinnie carried to the Gophers 2.
But the domination of Nebraska's offensive line, and physical I-back Rex Burkhead running behind it, allowed Nebraska to shrug off any quarterbacking problems. Burkhead ran for 117 yards on 23 carries, all in the first three quarters.
The Gophers believed for a few minutes that they would remain competitive, especially after halting Nebraska's first drive on the 4, forcing the Huskers to settle for a field goal. And the second Nebraska series appeared to stall, too. Martinez's fourth-and-1 pitch to Aaron Green clanged off the back's hands and out of bounds -- but ahead of the first-down marker. Much to the Gophers' dismay, officials ruled -- correctly, Kill admitted after the game -- that a backwards pass is spotted at the point where it goes out of bounds.
"A big swing. That was huge," Kill said. "But it was the right call."
Minnesota's plethora of mistakes included a Gray fumble that Huskers cornerback Austin Cassidy returned 11 yards for a score, and a fumbled snap on fourth-and-1 at Nebraska's 19 that killed a potential scoring drive.
There were penalties, too: One negated good field position on a kickoff return, and another wiped out a third-down sack that would have ended a Nebraska drive.
And there was some awful tackling, or lack of tackling, on a double reverse that sprung speedy Nebraska receiver Kenny Bell for an 82-yard touchdown.
"We put ourselves in bad positions," Kill said. "But we got a little better. ... We'll find some good things."
They had a couple. Gray pulled off a flea-flicker pass to Da'Jon McKnight in the third quarter, taking a pitch after a double reverse and connecting with his senior receiver inside the 4. Three plays later Gray jumped into the end zone, albeit after bobbling another snap. It was the Gophers' first touchdown of the Big Ten season before the fourth quarter.
And the Gophers tacked on one last scoring drive in the fourth quarter, going 89 yards in 16 plays against Nebraska's third-string defense. Bennett finished it off with a 6-yard run. It wasn't much to cling to, but it's better than nothing. Hey, it's the best showing the Gophers have had against Nebraska since 1970.
And the coach stayed optimistic.
"We'll be there someday," Kill said. "I know a lot of people question that."
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