Nebraska cornerback Dicaprio Bootle has played the past 43 games for the Huskers. Saturday’s 24-17 loss to Minnesota may have been his last at Memorial Stadium. Not the way it was expected to go, and certainly not the way anyone in red wanted it to go.
“But in life you don’t get a rewind button,” Bootle said.
Nor is there a fast-forward button, which is the particular pain for Nebraska right now. The Huskers are just stuck here, behind schedule and bumping into things. Still.
The Gophers were more than a touchdown underdog entering Saturday. The Gophers were down 20-plus players as they recovered from a COVID-19 outbreak. The Gophers hadn’t played in three weeks.
The Gophers, however, know who they are. Minnesota wasn’t all that efficient offensively—Nebraska’s defense did well in that aspect—but they were balanced, rushing for 206 yards and passing for 181.
“That’s kind of us,” P.J. Fleck said. “You might not see the 550 or 600 yards passing, you might not see the 500 yards rushing.”
What you saw was just enough of the little stuff to get a 24-17 win on the road while shorthanded.
Nebraska made it a one-score game with 4:42 remaining. The Huskers had all three timeouts. Minnesota threw for 10 yards to open the drive. It was a tendency-breaker. The Gophers had run on 20-of-25 first downs to that point and were a 72% run-on-first team entering the game, but this was winning time.
The Huskers had kept Mohamed Ibrahim mostly in check on the day, but the Big Ten’s best back took over from there. He dragged the pile for 7 yards, busted a run for 31 yards, slid to stay in bounds and burn a Nebraska timeout and then sealed the game with a 12-yard run on third-and-6, but instead of scoring he went down to keep the clock running.
Then, after Minnesota kneeled on it twice, Ibrahim consoled Nebraska senior safety Marquel Dismuke, who was slumped over in the end zone he’d just been defending.
That’s who Ibrahim is and that drive is who the Gophers are.
Now try fill in the same blank with Nebraska football. What’s the “us” that comes to mind?
Probably nothing good at the moment, but it’s also probably not as bad as this loss made it look.
Coaches use a lot of clichés, but one I always find to be viable is “it’s never as good as it seems, and it’s never as bad as it seems.”
Nebraska fans are rightfully tired of having to remember it, but maybe part of the difference between the two programs that played Saturday is that freedom to just be what you are at the moment. The Huskers, for most of the past three seasons, have seemed to consistently swing from one extreme to the other.
Ohio State was a loss, but encouraging. Northwestern was also a loss, and discouraging. Penn State was the start of something. Illinois was the end of everything until Iowa was pretty good and Purdue provided the desired result.
Knowing the Gophers were going through some things, you could start to talk yourself into a strong close to the 2020 season for Nebraska, a springboard for the future. Win this one, maybe get to .500 after that, go to a bowl game.
But that’s not what Nebraska has earned yet. It was somewhere in the middle all along, capable of playing the top two teams in the division within a score but also capable of losing as a double-digit favorite, twice. Nothing that’s to come this year will change that. No one game probably should have that much impact.
And if you’re willing to say that about potential wins, it also needs to be true of difficult losses.
There have been too many of the latter to this point. Nobody disputes that. Maybe the only way Nebraska changes that is if it really starts to feel as though things aren’t solely focused on where they should be or why they’re not there yet.
There wasn’t a ton of difference between the two teams on Saturday. The box score was pretty balanced with some wins and losses both ways. Minnesota, based on national averages could’ve been expected to have 1.9 turnovers in the game. It had zero. Nebraska could’ve been expected to have 2.1. It had two. With the average turnover producing about five points, and a seven-point margin, the math isn’t hard.
But it also wasn’t a surprise that Minnesota was the team that found a way to come out ahead there.
There seems to be a power in being at peace with what you are and aren’t. It’s one Nebraska’s still searching for.