The dateline was Lincoln, Neb. It just as easily could have been College Park, Md., or Columbus, Ohio. Or, of course, Minneapolis, too.
Wherever the Gophers defense has gone in the Big Ten, big plays — no, make that huge plays — by the opponent’s offense have been sure to follow.
Saturday’s game at Nebraska was the latest example. Facing a Cornhuskers team that hadn’t won a game this season and was averaging 23.3 points per contest, the Gophers were routed 53-28 as Nebraska bolted to a 28-0 second-quarter lead. The main culprit was a Minnesota defense that gave up 10 plays of 20 or more yards; included in that were Huskers touchdowns that covered 40, 59, 35 and 67 yards.
“We didn’t stop them tonight at all,’’ Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said after the game.
That has been a trend for the Gophers since Big Ten play began on Sept. 22 at Maryland, when the Terrapins scored five offensive touchdowns that averaged 49.2 yards in a 42-13 victory. Iowa’s six TDs in a 48-31 win at TCF Bank Stadium included two of 20 yards or longer. Ohio State had all three of its TDs go for 20 yards or longer in a 30-14 win. And then Nebraska had its big day in dropping the Gophers to 3-4 overall, 0-4 in the Big Ten.
It all has added up to this: During Big Ten play, Minnesota’s defense has given up 21 touchdowns, and the average length of each TD play has been 31.5 yards. Yep, nearly one-third of a football field.
In their losses to Iowa and Ohio State, the Gophers focused on stopping the run — they held the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes to 106 and 92 yards, respectively —while quarterbacks Nate Stanley (314 yards, four touchdown passes) and Dwayne Haskins (412 yards, three TDs) had big games. Against Nebraska, the Gophers couldn’t stop either the run or the pass, as the Huskers rushed for 383 yards and threw for 276.
True freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez did the damage for Nebraska by completing 25 of 29 passes for those 276 yards and three TDs and rushing 15 times for 125 yards and a score. His presence helped running backs Devine Ozigbo (12 carries, 152 yards, TDs of 40 and 59 yards) and Maurice Washington (14 carries, 109 yards, one TD) run wild.
“He’s a running back that’s an incredible quarterback,’’ Fleck said of Martinez. “He’s so fast, he’s so quick, he’s bigger than you think, and he can hurt you.’’
And especially efficient against the Gophers, too. According to Pro Football Focus’ college evaluators, Martinez had an adjusted completion percentage of 93.1 percent, best in FBS for passers with 15 attempts or more this weekend. That statistic factors in dropped passes, spiked balls, batted passes and passes in which the QB was hit as he threw.
“He’s a great athlete,’’ Gophers linebacker Kamal Martin said after the game. “We’ve just got to go out there and play our best.’’
What is the Gophers defense’s best? We might have seen it in the nonconference season, when safety Antoine Winfield Jr. intercepted a pass in the end zone late in the fourth quarter to preserve a 21-14 win. But Winfield was lost for the season two games later, and Big Ten opponents keep finding ways to exploit Minnesota’s weaknesses. In Big Ten games, the Gophers rank 13th of 14 teams in total defense (503.8 yards allowed per game) and scoring defense (43.3 points allowed per game).
After Saturday’s game, Fleck backed defensive coordinator Robb Smith, saying, “I have 100 percent faith in every single one of our coaches. Absolutely.
“No excuses,’’ Fleck added. “It’s all on me.’’