LINCOLN, NEB. - Curse those dastardly Cornhuskers.
It wasn't enough for them to be favored by nearly three touchdowns against the Gophers on Saturday.
It wasn't enough to have a talented quarterback, a powerful running game, better athletes, an aggressive defense and an offense that averages 482 yards and 37 points per game.
It wasn't enough to have a ticket to the Big Ten championship within their grasp.
It wasn't enough to have one of the best home-field advantages in all of college football, 325 consecutive sellouts at Memorial Stadium, dating to 1962.
Nope, the Huskers had to reach into their history and bring goose-bump emotion to the game as well.
The Huskers invited legendary coach Tom Osborne to lead the team out of the locker room, down their traditional tunnel walk and onto the field as an army of 85,000 red-clad worshippers bathed in nostalgia.
Game, set, match.
The Gophers had a snowball's chance of shocking the Huskers on this day, and the outcome was predictably one-sided as Nebraska imposed its will in a 38-14 victory.
This one was 10 shades of ugly and not even remotely competitive.
"This is definitely a learning experience," freshman quarterback Philip Nelson said. "Going into a place like this and experiencing what we just went through is definitely going to help in the long run. We're a young team right now, and getting this out of the way is only going to help us in the future."
The Gophers achieved their season benchmark by becoming bowl eligible a week ago, but they once again discovered just how far away they remain from competing with the Big Ten's upper echelon, especially on the road.
They looked completely overwhelmed and physically overmatched on both sides of the ball. They couldn't run the ball or stop the run. They gave up big plays and failed to produce them. Their offense couldn't stay on the field, the defense couldn't get off it.
They managed only 177 yards on offense. They gave up 444 yards on defense. They punted 11 times, including one that traveled 7 yards.
"We don't have any excuses," coach Jerry Kill said. "They just dominated us from a defensive standpoint. Our defense was asked to be on the field too much."
Saturday marked the Gophers' first trip to Lincoln since 1990 -- they got steamrolled that day too, 56-0 -- and they received an education in big-time football. Osborne was the architect for much of that success and the school rolled out the red carpet in celebrating his final home game as its athletic director, which also served as his 500th game at Nebraska as either a coach or administrator.
The Gophers played the role of gracious guests, which happens too often when they line up against the Big Ten elite. Nobody really expected them to beat the Huskers, but it would be nice to see the Gophers play more competitively. Make the game more than a layup for their opponent.
"There's no question it's a great environment to play in," Kill said. "If it did anything, it should help you get excited about playing. I just think their defensive football team dominated us up front."
The Gophers have made incremental progress this season and playing in a bowl game should provide some benefits. But if they're going to take the next step in their development, they need to prove they can physically compete with Wisconsin and Nebraska and the rest of the Big Ten's heavyweights. Their performance Saturday represented another stark reminder of their deficiencies in that area.
"You learn that you've got to step it up," Nelson said. "You've got to be able to get faster, stronger to be able to play with teams like this in an environment like this."
Maybe they're right and that taking these lumps will help them down the road. Maybe they'll use games like this as a measuring stick that guides their offseason workouts. The Gophers are convinced they're on the right track, but they still have a long way to go to close that gap.
"It's hard on those kids," Kill said. "They're giving us everything they've got. I can't say they're not busting their tail end. We'll keep making improvements and it takes some patience."
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org
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