Two Big Ten teams played football Saturday in Lincoln, but only one team played BIG TEN FOOTBALL––Nebraska in the first half, Minnesota in the second half. That equaled one complete game, a game in which the Gophers out-Big-Tenned Nebraska enough in the second half to rally for a 20-13 win.
Nebraska engineered the start it needed on Saturday. After receiving the opening kickoff, the Huskers kept things on the ground on Chubba Purdy’s first drive. Running back Anthony Grant gained 35 yards on the first play and would account for 60 of the 75 yards Nebraska would gain to take a 7-0 lead on a rushing touchdown from Purdy. Offensive coordinator Mark Whipple kept things simple for Purdy, starting in place of injured Casey Thompson, rushing on seven of nine plays. His two passes to open the game, both complete, were thrown behind the line of scrimmage.
The defense opened just as well, stopping star running back Mohamed Ibrahim for gains of 3 yards and 1 yard before sacking Tanner Morgan to end the drive. The Huskers turned the ensuing drive into a field goal for a 10-0 lead.
The Husker defense made the lead hold through halftime, allowing just 31 yards on 24 plays in the first half. Those totals included six tackles for loss by the Nebraska defense.
Per the ESPN2 broadcast, entering Saturday the Gophers had lost 32 straight games when falling behind by 10 points or more.
But things flipped early in the second half. The Gophers drove for a field goal on the opening drive, forced a three-and-out from the Huskers and turned good field position into a game-tying touchdown. Minnesota would out-gain Nebraska 219-14 in third quarter, while holding the ball for more than 11 minutes, on its way to taking a 13-10 lead early in the fourth.
The game was turnover-free for nearly 47 minutes, but a Purdy interception with 13:10 left led to a Minnesota touchdown, which only provided the punctuation for the sentence that had been written to that point in the second half: Minnesota was in control.
Nebraska acknowledged as much when it went for it on fourth-and-10 at the Minnesota 45 on the following drive. A 32-yard sideline pass from backup quarterback Logan Smothers to Marcus Washington was originally ruled incomplete but overturned on review, giving the Huskers’ life in a game that would’ve been all but settled. Nebraska could only manage a field goal from the rejuvenated drive, kicking a field goal after stalling out at the Minnesota 8-yard line.
The Huskers’ comeback attempt was at a do-or-die moment on a third-and-7 with 2:38 left. The Gophers gave it to their go-to guy, Ibrahim, who gained 7 yards. This review, of the initial spot awarding a first down, went the Huskers’ way as well, setting up fourth-and-a-half-yard to go. After some indecision, Minnesota opted to punt, setting Smothers up with 88-yard field and 2:25 to go.
Nebraska rushed for 1 yard and then a loss of 2 before Smothers found Washington again, this time for a 31-yard gain on third-and-11. It was as close as the Huskers would get as a fourth-and-5 pass to Trey Palmer was in his hands but jarred loose to allow the Gophers to kneel it out. Minnesota had the ball for nearly 20 minutes in the second half.
On to some notes, thoughts and observations:
- Minnesota entered Saturday having allowed seven sacks on the season, tied for sixth nationally. The Husker managed three sacks in the first half, including 1.5 from Caleb Tannor.
- Grant rushed for 89 yards in the first half, topping his game totals from the past three games–47 against Rutgers, 35 against Purdue, 61 against Illinois. Grant eclipsed the 100-yard mark for the fifth time this season, but only had 26 yards in the second half as Minnesota corralled Nebraska’s run game.
- Thanks to the fast start and strong defense, Nebraska held a slight edge in time of possession in the first half. Minnesota entered the week second nationally in time of possession at 35:18 per game. The Huskers had the ball for 15:13 of the first 30 minutes.
- Minnesota starting quarterback Tanner Morgan was subbed out at halftime, due to injury according to the broadcast, and the Gophers offense seemed to get a boost from backup Athan Kaliakmanis. He went 6-of-12 for 137 yards and rushed for 27 while leading the offense to 20 second-half points.
- The Huskers were out-gained 269-116 in the second half.
- Nebraska held Minnesota to a 38% success rate. The other three teams to do that or better this year all beat the Gophers. However, the Huskers offense could only manage a 25% success rate.
- The Huskers shuffled quarterbacks in the second half. On the day, Purdy was 6-of-16 passing for 41 yards with an interception while rushing for 24 yards. Smothers was 5-for-10 for 80 yards and had four carries for 4 yards.
- The big-play battle swung in a big way at halftime. The Huskers held Minnesota without an explosive play (rush of 10+, pass of 15+) in the first half, but gave up eight over the final 30 minutes. The Gophers had an 8-7 edge in explosive plays.
- Ibrahim rushed for 128 yards, his 17th consecutive game rushing for more than 100 yards. That’s the longest streak by an FBS player since 2000.
- Minnesota under Fleck was 2-19 entering Saturday in games when it trailed after the first quarter, 2-21 when it trailed at the half.
Brandon is the Managing Editor for Hail Varsity and has covered Nebraska athletics for the magazine and web since 2012, Hail Varsity’s first season on the scene. His sports writing has also been featured by Fox Sports, The Guardian and CBS Sports.