Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Nebraska’s Offense Vanishes Long Enough for Minnesota to Seize 20-13 Win

November 05, 2022

For all the changes within the Nebraska football team in the last two months, the same issues resurfaced on Saturday.

Athletic director Trev Alberts picked Mickey Joseph for the interim head coach position when he fired Scott Frost. He wanted to give Nebraska its best chance to win. Alberts owed the players that much. The Huskers bought into Joseph’s message and found success. He told them to stay in the fight. Keep swinging. Land the last punch. They did exactly that on Saturday. But it wasn’t enough to shed years of that creeping guttural woe. Another double-digit lead and a helpless gaze as it disappeared.

The interim head coach walked away knowing the Huskers could have put the game away. All they needed was another score. It didn’t come until it was too late.

“It was a two-score game, they stayed with their gameplan,” Joseph said afterwards. “When you play a team like that you’ve really got to get three scores up on them before they can change their gameplan. Two scores, they’re going to continue to do it.”

Backup quarterback Chubba Purdy helmed scoring drives on Nebraska’s first two possessions to give the Huskers a 10-0 lead and couldn’t do anything after. Nebraska punted on its next drive and went 3-and-out the following six drives. That gave Minnesota time to rattle off 20 straight points. The Huskers dug themselves a hole two possessions deep and stared up at a pinhole inside Memorial Stadium with 9 minutes left. Hope for an improbable comeback ended when star receiver Trey Palmer hit the ground on 4th down without the ball. Minnesota (6-3, 3-3 Big Ten) beat Nebraska (3-6, 2-4), 20-13, to extend the Huskers’ losing streak to three games. The recurring nightmare returned with a new cast of characters.

Purdy, No. 2 on the depth chart, trotted into the shotgun for his first career start and the Husker offense took off. Running back Anthony Grant sprung loose for 36 yards on the opening play to kickstart the Huskers’ engine. The offense eventually found the 2 yard line and that’s all Purdy needed to scamper into the end zone. Off went the fireworks, stirring the 86,284 fans in attendance to their feet.

Typical starter Casey Thompson woke up with more feeling in his fingers today but Joseph said he wasn’t comfortable playing him. So Purdy started and nearly scored with his legs and arms on the first two drives. The back-up quarterback nearly connected with tight end Travis Vokolek on the Huskers’ second drive. After some missed connections on deep and intermediate throws, Purdy threaded the needle out in front of the offensive team captain but Vokolek couldn’t corral it on third down. Timmy Bleekrode chipped a field goal from 24 yards out to extend Nebraska’s early lead to two possessions.

Nebraska’s offense then fell upon its familiar struggles. Their final three drives of the first half ended in punts, the last two on 3-and-outs. Drive-extending catches from Trey Palmer and Chancellor Brewington weren’t enough to produce points. A false start penalty and snuffed-out scrambles from Purdy put the Huskers behind the sticks. Brian Buschini pinned back Minnesota while the Gophers offense struggled.

The Gophers managed just 31 total yards on their first 24 plays. Five of Minnesota’s first 16 plays ended in tackles for loss. Nebraska’s Ty Robinson delivered a crunching sack to quarterback Tanner Morgan on the final play of the first half. Morgan, who missed the Penn State game earlier this season in concussion protocol, didn’t return. Running back Mohamed Ibrahim had just 18 first-half rushing yards on a heavily taped ankle. But the Gophers needed to just buy enough time.

“They just came out harder than us,” team captain edge Caleb Tannor said. “We can’t let that happen. We’ve got to come out in the second half with more energy than we came out in the first half with. It’s that simple.”

Minnesota moved the ball 46 yards for a field goal out of halftime. Then came a 40-yard drive. An 86-yard drive. A 47-yard drive. A 33-yard drive. Punt, touchdown, field goal, touchdown. Ibrahim ran for 110 yards and two touchdowns in the second half alone. His first score tied the game late in the third quarter and his second put the Gophers up two scores with 9:22 left. Backup quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis threw for 137 yards on 6 of 12, most of them on the run for minimal gains. He caught Nebraska’s secondary off guard on two of those throws for big gains.

“First half I thought we were on fire,” Robinson said. “Then, obviously, Minnesota was going to make adjustments. When they couldn’t run the ball they were going to pass and that’s on us. We’ve got to stay focused, stay out there and execute the small details.”

While Minnesota hit a rhythm, Purdy struggled. And, thus, the offense struggled. A Mark Whipple-engineered, QB-driven offensive system under the backup amounted for 33 yards in the 45 minutes, 39 seconds between Nebraska scoring drives. His 7-yard pass to Rahmir Johnson with 6:40 left the second quarter was the last Nebraska completion until Logan Smothers replaced Purdy and found Trey Palmer along the sidelines for 7 yards with 8:40 left in the game. That ended a 28-minute drought.

Both quarterbacks practiced well but Purdy earned the start. Following the initial scores, the offense punted on six straight drives. Joseph said after the game they probably should have brought Smothers in earlier but felt more comfortable throwing with Purdy. His interception at midfield on the following drive sent him to the bench.

“I thought Whipple and I were on the same page,” Joseph said. “When we thought the kid wasn’t seeing it we went to Logan.”

With the game on the line, Smothers delivered a 32-yard pass to Marcus Washington along the sidelines that required video review. Officials initially ruled it incomplete but review showed Washington caught the ball with his right foot in bounds. That 4th-down throw allowed Nebraska to get inside the red zone and Bleekrode chipped in a 26-yard field goal to get the Huskers within a touchdown. Nebraska’s defense stopped Ibrahim a half yard short of the sticks on the following drive, leading Minnesota to ultimately punt after some confusion.

Smothers and the offense took over again with 2:25 left. He rifled a pass into Washington’s hands again, springing a 31-yard gain near midfield. But that’s as far as the Huskers got. Smothers went to star receiver Trey Palmer on 4th down and the team’s leading receiver couldn’t corral it. Joseph said afterwards Palmer should have caught it. Tough play, quick hit, but it’s a catch big-time players need to make. Instead, a team desperate to find its winning ways was forced to learn yet another lesson the hard way.

“It’s part of learning how to win and it’s part of executing,” Joseph said. “If you don’t execute in this league, things like this are going to happen. I’ve got to do a better job getting them to execute.”

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