It felt like the old Nebraska again.
No, not the Nebraska of 20 years ago that would have stomped an unranked but 7-2 Minnesota, but the Nebraska of October 2016. The Nebraska that committed costly penalties and played inconsistently but got a gutty performance out of its quarterback and both – both! — a mammoth fourth-quarter drive to take the lead and a timely turnover to seal the deal.
It could not have played out any more to script.
“I suppose by this time of the year we can describe this as a typical Husker win,” Coach Mike Riley said. “That probably would be appropriate with that game.”
Probably would, and that wasn’t a given just a week removed from 62-3. Everyone was forced to wonder if Nebraska’s run to 7-0 – or 7-1, really, because there was no shame in that Wisconsin loss – was an illusion.
Saturday night showed that it wasn’t. It was remarkably accurate, which is rare in football. Nebraska isn’t yards or touchdowns better than most of the Big Ten at this point. It’s a little bit better, and, in year two of this attempted college football summit, Nebraska’s third since the firing of Frank Solich, that’s honestly enough.
Through the first 30 minutes, it didn’t look like it would even be that. The first half was vintage Minnesota. The Gophers’ offense isn’t an offense that blows an opponent away, it simply outlasts it. It needs good field position. It needs an untimely penalty. It got those things early against Nebraska. An almost unthinkable illegal procedure penalty on Nebraska’s punt team, 12 men on the field, extended the Gophers’ first drive, a 14-play, 7-minute epic that ended in a touchdown.
The Gophers would score twice more in the first half, both on short fields resulting from a Nebraska punt. It is what Minnesota does. The Gophers came into the game ranked second nationally in starting field position.
But Nebraska did what Nebraska of 2016 does in the second half as the favorite – it did just enough. It wasn’t fluky. The Huskers didn’t start a second-half drive beyond their own 21-yard line. Nebraska went 79 yards to open the second half, converting three third downs and getting two huge plays – a 12-yard run and a 31-yard touchdown reception that required broken tackles and nifty footwork – from Terrell Newby.
Two drives later, Minnesota punted from Nebraska’s 46-yard line – remember, this is what the Gophers do – and Nebraska was facing 91 yards of turf with a possibly hobbled quarterback in a tie game. And, like so many fourth-quarter drives this season, Nebraska found a way to make it work. A 29-yard completion to De’Mornay Pierson-El was the one that opened things up but Newby followed that up with a 7-yard run and a 7-yard reception. The Husker offense that had barely been on the field for most of the game, seemed ready. Pierson-El came back with a 9-yard run. Then a 16-yard catch by Alonzo Moore, a 10-yard reception by Jordan Westerkamp, then Newby for 9 on the ground. It set up an advantageous second-and-1 from the Gophers’ 16.
And Nebraska called two passes, both incomplete, a bizarre bit of play calling, but not as strange as what was to come. Facing fourth-and-1 from the 16 – chip-shot range for Drew Brown – Nebraska went for it.
Newby converted it.
“I just was confident we were going to make it,” Riley said. “A lot of it was we needed a touchdown there.”
One play later, Armstrong provided it, carrying the final 13 yards. He hurt his hamstring, apparently, on the play and a pair of offensive linemen carried him off the field. It would end up being his last play of the game, just enough thanks to remarkable Kieron Williams’ interception near the goal line on a tipped ball 6 minutes of game clock later.
Just enough seems to be the theme of this second Riley squat at Nebraska. The old coaching axiom about rebuilding is first you lose big, then you lose close, then you win close, and then you win big.
Nebraska under Riley seemed to skip the first phase last year. Maybe the Bo Pelini years meant this wasn’t your typical rebuild. Maybe the big losses of that era ate up the first phase, but Riley started at Nebraska at the lose-close threshold.
Now the Huskers are winning close. It’s not always pretty. It sometimes feel improbable, but if it is just the next step in a progression, that’s probably enough.
Nebraska needs help to win the division. It could’ve been eliminated from the race with a loss on Saturday, but it beat that back. It may not be enough to beat the Badgers for a trip to Indianapolis this year – Wisconsin trounced Illinois on Saturday and looks very much like a team not intent on giving up its tie-breaker over the next two games – but it was enough to dull, at least a little bit, the blowout at the hands of the Buckeyes.
The Huskers of 2016 aren’t the team that lost 62-3 to Ohio State. At least not totally. It’s more like the team that beat Minnesota 24-17, and that’s still a step forward from a year ago.