The football rivalry between the Gophers and Nebraska might not occupy the lofty status that, say, Michigan vs. Ohio State does, but it's slowly been heating up over the past few years.
With Nebraska coach Scott Frost's stated disdain for sloganeering — a staple of P.J. Fleck's Gophers program — and a couple of his Minnesota-raised players not being shy about their dislike of the Gophers, Saturday's game at Huntington Bank Stadium featured a little added intensity.
After the Gophers defeated Nebraska 30-23 with a resurgent offense in the first half and a defense making big plays to repel a Cornhuskers comeback, Fleck turned the dial to "11.''
"That was truly culture vs. skill,'' said Fleck, championing his "Row the Boat'' philosophy. "That's what I saw today. Whatever anybody else wants to say about us or our program or our culture, feel free. We've been called every name in the book.''
On Saturday, "resilient'' is what one could call the Gophers (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) as they defeated Nebraska (3-5, 1-4) for the third consecutive time and improved to 4-1 against the Huskers under Fleck.
There's more: The victory left the Gophers a half-game behind Iowa (3-1 conference) in the Big Ten West race after the second-ranked Hawkeyes lost 24-7 at home to Purdue.
Only three weeks removed from an abysmal offensive showing in a 14-10 loss to Bowling Green, the Gophers put together an impressive first half as Tanner Morgan re-emerged at quarterback, completing 14 of 15 passes for 171 yards and two touchdowns as Minnesota took a 21-9 lead. He would finish 20-for-24 for 209 yards.
"We had a really solid game plan,'' Morgan said, "and guys were making plays.''
Nobody more so than wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell, who's battled a nagging ankle injury all season. Autman-Bell finished with 11 receptions for 103 yards and made a spectacular catch in the corner of the end zone to give the Gophers the 12-point edge before intermission.
"I've seen [the replay] a couple times,'' said Autman-Bell, who had Huskers cornerback Quinton Newsome draped all over him but still got two feet in-bounds. "It's actually a cool catch.''
Mike Brown-Stephens caught a 28-yard TD pass from Morgan, while Cole Kramer, the QB in the wildcat formation, put the Gophers on the board first with three tough runs for 9 yards inside the Nebraska 16 and a 5-yard TD pass to tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford on fourth down-and-1.
"Great job, especially in the first half, by Mike Sanford calling plays,'' Fleck said of his offensive coordinator. "It was completely balanced.''
In the second half, though, Morgan threw two interceptions, and Nebraska closed the gap to 23-16 on Rahmir Johnson's 1-yard TD run that came after the second pick.
And when the Huskers moved inside the Gophers 10 on Johnson's 29-yard run later in the quarter, Minnesota's defense needed to respond. It did, in spades, with a goal-line stand.
First, linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin and safety Jordan Howden combined to stop quarterback Adrian Martinez for no gain on third-and-goal from the 1. On the next play, safety Tyler Nubin nailed running back Jaquez Yant for no gain, sending a charge into the crowd of 45,436.
"If it takes a goal-line stand, it takes a goal-line stand,'' Fleck said. "When Nubin comes down to the hole and it's one-on-one and he gets lower than [Yant], that ball's stuffed at the inch-line.''
The defense wasn't through, though. It stood its ground enough to force the Huskers to try a 27-yard field goal, which Connor Culp missed on the first play of the fourth quarter. Nebraska reached the Minnesota 34 midway through the fourth, but MJ Anderson and Donald Willis batted down passes by Martinez on third and fourth down.
The defense's kill shot came with 4:53 left, when Esezi Otomewo wrapped up Martinez in the end zone, forcing the QB into an intentional grounding penalty that gave the Gophers a safety and a 23-16 lead.
"Everybody [was] in a combined effort doing their job,'' linebacker Jack Gibbens said.
The Gophers boosted their lead to 30-16 when Bryce Williams broke free for a 56-yard TD run with 2:12 to play. Taking the bulk of the load with Trey Potts out for the season, Williams rushed 17 times for 127 yards.
Though Nebraska trimmed the lead to seven on Martinez's 9-yard TD pass to Austin Allen with 1:12 to go, freshman receiver Brady Boyd secured the win for the Gophers by recovering the onside kick.
"We're going to enjoy this one tonight,'' Fleck said. "Again, culture, culture, culture.''