MINNEAPOLIS — Snow started drifting before kickoff. It never really reached a level where field conditions were going to be affected, though. It was more of just a dusting.
Could say the same thing about the game.
Nebraska will enter into its first bye week 4-3 on the season and 2-2 in conference play. The goal after an Ohio State demo was 2-0 against Northwestern and Minnesota. The Northwestern win came but it didn’t look great. The Minnesota game Saturday night just didn’t look great. The Gophers left TCF Bank Stadium with a 34-7 win.
Here are three thoughts from the game.
I wrote about progress before this game kicked off.
Nebraska got curb-stomped by a bad Minnesota team the last time it came to TCF Bank Stadium in 2017. The team I saw through the first six weeks, minus Ohio State, was a team that showed clear signs of growth from what will go down as a low point in recent memory for this team.
Hard to not feel like this one was a step in the wrong direction.
Nebraska’s defensive line looked like it was going up against All-Americans across the board. The secondary looked uninterested in tackling. From the opening kickoff, the bulk of the team looked like it didn’t want to be on the field. By the end of the third quarter, Nebraska looked like it was done playing.
Minnesota ran for 217 yards at halftime. The Gophers averaged a first down every time they ran the ball in the first half. That number only dropped to 6.9 with the second half factored in.
But, this was only a 14-0 game at halftime. Doable. Given the way the first half played out, you wouldn’t think so, but it’s still only two scores.
Coach Scott Frost actually had the entire 74-man roster line up on the 20-yard-line coming out of the second half and made them run sprints to the end zone and then back to the 20. Then the offense scrimmaged the defense for a few plays.
Minnesota got the ball to begin the second half, returned the kickoff 32 yards, then went deep over the middle for a 45-yard pitch-and-catch to a wide-open Tyler Johnson, who made a handful of Husker defensive backs look like they were playing in the mud. The Gophers scored four plays later to make it 21-0.
Then it was 28-0.
Then it was 34-0.
You kept waiting for Nebraska to wake up and offer some kind of fight, from anyone, and you just kept waiting. A 2-yard touchdown run from running back Dedrick Mills early in the fourth quarter capped a drive that featured a few nice throws from sophomore quarterback Noah Vedral to sophomore wideout Kade Warner. It ensured Nebraska wasn’t going to get shut out for the first time in over two decades. But it did little to change the tenor of the evening.
This doesn’t feel like a talent thing. Again, it’s Minnesota. Instead, it feels like an execution thing and it feels like a care thing. Which means this is going to take a lot longer than anyone previously thought.
The Biggest Issue, Clear and Present
No, Adrian Martinez wasn’t playing his best football or making the best decisions on every snap of the ball, but it took one half without the sophomore quarterback in the backfield to make it abundantly clear what Nebraska’s biggest issue as an offense is.
The offensive line stinks.
The redshirt freshman center playing in his seventh game ever at the position, and doing it in wet and freezing cold conditions on the heels of snapping problems each of the first six weeks, was Nebraska’s best lineman.
Think about that.
Neither guard played well. Neither tackle played well. Vedral, starting for the injured Martinez, looked pretty darn good when he had a pocket to throw from, but he had a pocket to throw from on, what, 10 plays? Sophomore Trent Hixson, a walk-on who basically had the left guard spot locked up in the spring en route to being put on scholarship, was replaced by sophomore Broc Bando at halftime.
Before back-ups came in, Nebraska averaged 4.3 yards a run when you remove sacks, which doesn’t look all that horrible, but it produced just three explosive run plays and struggled with basic four-man pressures from the Gopher defensive line.
Nebraska has skill position guys who can make game-changing plays when afforded the opportunity. But the offensive line needs to either block for those runners or give its quarterback enough time to find those receivers. When Nebraska needed a strong game up front the most, it got perhaps the worst effort of the year.
After a second offseason with strength coach Zach Duval, Nebraska is bigger and Nebraska is stronger and there’s really no reason it should get pushed around by Minnesota. Ohio State? Sure. A Gopher team that ranks eighth in the Big Ten in yards per carry allowed, ninth in yards per play allowed and 13th in tackles for loss?
To begin the second quarter, with the Gophers holding just a seven-point lead, Nebraska got a run from freshman Wan’Dale Robinson that began at the Gopher 36 and ended somewhere around the Gopher 4. Instead, a block-in-the-back penalty 1 yard downfield brought the Huskers all the way back to the Minnesota 45.
Two plays later, it punted the ball away.
Senior defensive back Jeramiah Stovall nearly downed the ball at the Minnesota 2-yard-line, but slipped and couldn’t field the punt. While laying on his back, the ball slowly rolled across the goal line. Touchback.
Minnesota’s Shannon Brooks went 25 yards on the first play of the ensuing Minnesota drive. The Gophers then hit for 8, 7, 15, 10 and 15 to go up 14-0. No looking back from that point and seemingly no change for Nebraska.
What does this game look like if Nebraska sets up shop inside Minnesota’s 5-yard-line? Does it score to tie? What does that do for the team’s confidence? It went the other way and the team looked deflated as a result.
Nebraska has very little depth in some spots and absolutely none at others. If guys get gassed on defense, it’s over. If guys get hurt on offense, it’s over. (Pray for Robinson, who left the game on a medical cart before halftime. His father, Dale, tweeted that Robinson isn’t on crutches, but he never returned to the game.)
One penalty wrecks a drive. One missed assignment on defense breaks a huge play. It’s hard to play that way without breaking. I think we saw Nebraska’s back break Saturday night.
Now it’s about how they address issues during the bye week and how they respond.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.