With 33 players out because of COVID-19 positive tests or injuries, the Gophers went to Nebraska on Saturday as double-digit underdogs. But they left the victors by a touchdown.
Mohamed Ibrahim again led the way, as he so often has this season, amassing 108 yards and two TDs on 20 carries. All of this coming out of a two-week layoff, the most recent game Nov. 20 against Purdue, dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak that peaked at 49 cases on the team.
The passing game made its first appearance sans star Rashod Bateman, who opted out again shortly after the team paused activities amid the outbreak. Quarterback Tanner Morgan went 17 of 30 for 181 yards and one touchdown, targeting eight different receivers. But drops still plagued that group, including a couple by true freshman Daniel Jackson.
The defense had good and bad moments but held Nebraska to just a field goal on its final drive with just 308 total offensive yards. The 3-3 Gophers now have a low-tier bowl game in reach if they can win this week.
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Roll call: Absences hit the offense line and tight ends the hardest. Without center John Michael Schmitz and left guard Axel Ruschmeyer, the O-line started Nathan Boe at center and true freshman Aireontae Ersery at right tackle while shifting around the other starters' usual positions. Ko Kieft and Jake Paulson were out, leaving Brevyn Spann-Ford and true freshman Austin Henderson as the only tight ends available. Defensive tackle Micah Dew-Treadway and linebacker Cody Lindenberg were also out, replaced by Keonte Schad, his first game back since Oct. 30, and James Gordon IV, respectively. Cornerback Benjamin St-Juste and defensive end Boye Mafe also returned, with St-Juste's last game Nov. 7 and Mafe's Nov. 13.
Playing through the pain: Ibrahim appeared to play through a left shoulder injury, which he could have picked up Nov. 20 against Purdue when he exited the game early. Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said Ibrahim switched pads during the game to try and find the ones that caused him the least discomfort. He also said Ibrahim was on a "pitch count." Backup running back Treyson Potts also took his first carry since leaving the Nov. 7 game because of a lower-leg injury. Spann-Ford also played after sitting out Nov. 20 because of a lower-leg injury.
Surprising performances: Linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin has struggled this year, missing tackles and incurring penalties. But he put together his best statistical game of his career by far at Nebraska, totaling a game-high 18 tackles and one forced fumble. Kicker Anders Gelecinskyj also made waves, making his first Gophers appearance. On his very first kick, he banked in an extra point off the post, but he ended the game 3-for-3 on PATs and also had a 31-yard field goal. Gelecinskyj, a walk-on transfer from Minnesota State who has been on the team since 2018, took the place of Michael Lantz and Brock Walker, who have both seen time this season. Lantz is likely done for the year because of an injury.
Up next: at Wisconsin
3 p.m. Saturday, Camp Randall Stadium • BTN (100.3-FM)
The skinny: Take 2 on the Border Battle after the Gophers canceled the original Nov. 28 game because of their COVID-19 outbreak. The Badgers (2-3) won their first two games of the year big against Illinois on Oct. 23 and at Michigan on Nov. 14, with a two-week break for their own COVID-19 outbreak in the interim.
Since then, though, the Badgers have lost to Northwestern, Indiana and Iowa, managing just seven points or fewer in each. The offense averages 401.5 yards per game, including a rush that averages nearly 200 yards per game while the passing game has struggled.
In the 28-7 loss to Iowa on Saturday, the Badgers played without three key players in leading rusher Jalen Berger, and wide receivers Danny Davis and Kendric Pryor. Redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz is 95 of 156 for 976 yards with a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 8-to-5.
The Badgers defense, though, still tops the conference, allowing an average of just 251 yards and 15.4 points per game.