Mohamed Ibrahim slid feet-first. Twice, actually.
The first was on the opening score of a 24-17 victory Saturday at Nebraska, a 26-yard run with Ibrahim sneaking just inside the cone before a slip on Nebraska's icy sideline sent him barreling into a barrier, appearing to aggravate a lingering shoulder injury. A couple of pad changes and some extra time on the bench thanks to a sit-out, and Ibrahim made his second slide — 6 yards short of the undefended end zone with less than two minutes to play.
That could have been Ibrahim's 16th rushing touchdown in just six games this year, another score to inch him closer to the school record and national lead. But the running back made the smart, selfless move instead.
"I know Mo probably wanted that next touchdown," Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. "… But if you go down, and it's downtime, and [it's] executed perfectly, the game's over. We get into victory formation."
Ibrahim, playing through injury on a depleted offense, embodied the tenacity the Gophers needed to improve to 3-3 after a two-week layoff while dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak. The Gophers, who hadn't played since Nov. 20, were without 23 players from positive tests alone, sitting out the Big Ten's mandatory 21 days, from the outbreak that peaked at 49 cases. Fleck said the team in total missed 33 players, including those absent because of injuries, and was close to not having enough players to safely field a team.
On offense, two missing linemen forced a reconfigured lineup, including true freshman Aireontae Ersery starting at right tackle. The tight end group was down to two available players, starter Brevyn Spann-Ford and backup true freshman Austin Henderson. Plus, the receivers played without star Rashod Bateman for the first time, as he re-opted out of the college football season to prepare for the NFL draft shortly after the team paused to deal with the outbreak.
The defense played without starting defensive tackle and veteran player Micah Dew-Treadway while also welcoming back several players who had sat out the previous one to three games, including defensive end Boye Mafe, cornerback Benjamin St-Juste and defensive tackle Keonte Schad.
"It showed our toughness, to be able to come together and play through adversity, no matter what happens," quarterback Tanner Morgan said. "Play for each other, with each other, no matter who we're playing, because it's about us."
The Gophers built a lead early off Ibrahim's opener and first-time kicker Anders Gelecinskyj, who made a 31-yard field goal. Nebraska briefly took the lead with two second-quarter plays from quarterback Adrian Martinez, an 8-yard pass to tight end Austin Allen and a 7-yard run all by himself. But the Gophers reclaimed the lead again from their own tight-end play.
Morgan tossed a 4-yard pass to Spann-Ford, who had missed the most recent game with a lower-leg injury. A key targeting call that took out one of Nebraska's best defensive players in Cam Taylor-Britt helped set that up and gave the Gophers some momentum after the defender's high hit on Morgan.
Ibrahim helped ensure the win with a 1-yard run, a touchdown that took four tries to drive across the line. And Nebraska couldn't manage anything more than a 30-yard field goal from Connor Culp with about five minutes left in the game.
While the Gophers offense showed some weak spots, including numerous dropped passes — a couple from true freshman Daniel Jackson — and seven broken-up passes, some batted down at the line of scrimmage, the final drive proved the Gophers can finish the game with the ball in hand.
On the first play of that final drive, Morgan completed a 10-yard throw to backup receiver Clay Geary. Ibrahim took control from there, taking several carries, one going 31 yards. And of course, that game-sealing slide.
Along with his two touchdowns, Ibrahim ran for 108 yards on 20 carries. Morgan went 17-for-30 for 181 yards. The defense allowed Nebraska 308 yards, including 197 on the ground, but made several impact plays, such as safety Tyler Nubin's interception to set up a scoring drive and Mafe's strip sack.
Fleck left the game feeling very proud of his team for being able to come out of a two-week break not at full strength and pull off a road victory. His team will possibly have to do that one more time this coming Saturday, as the conference should announce the final scheduled matchup Sunday.
One final win could put the Gophers in position for a lower-tier bowl game. A loss would likely end a turbulent 2020 season.
"I do believe that unless you're inside the college football, or maybe a basketball, locker room or facility right now," Fleck said, "I don't think anybody has any idea how hard this is, honestly."
The Star Tribune reporter did not travel for this game. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews after the game.