Every time Nebraska looks like it’s ready to move forward, the Huskers find a way to take a big step backwards. Nothing captured that trait better on Saturday than Minnesota’s go-ahead touchdown drive at the end of the first half.
For that reason, this week’s Play of the Game is the targeting call on Cam Taylor-Britt.
Nebraska took its first lead of the game at 14-10 on a 7-yard touchdown run by Adrian Martinez with 2:57 to go in the first half. A three-and-out there would have given the Huskers a chance to really take control heading into halftime, especially since the Gophers were set to get the ball to start the third quarter.
Instead, Cam Wiley ripped a 61-yard run up the right sideline on the first play. The Huskers stuffed the next run attempt for 1 yard, then a false start pushed the Gophers back 5 yards. On Second-and-14, Tanner Morgan took a shot at the corner of the end zone to his best receiver, Chris Autman-Bell, but the Huskers read the play from the start. Safety Deontai Williams sprinted over and ran in front of the pass, putting himself in position for an interception, and had the ball go right through his hands.
Instead of a pick, it went down as a pass breakup, setting up third-and-14 for Minnesota. Morgan dropped back, didn’t see anything and took off.
They’ve made it impossible to play defense. There is no way this player should be ejected pic.twitter.com/CLpryQjKpo
— Pick Six Previews (@PickSixPreviews) December 12, 2020
Taylor-Britt read the play and bailed on his backpedal, coming forward in run support. Morgan was nowhere near the line to gain, but Taylor-Britt still launched himself to make the tackle. Morgan saw three Huskers coming and started to go down, dropping his helmet level, and Taylor-Britt drilled him in the ear-hole. The officials on the field didn’t see anything off and it originally went down as a 4-yard gain, but the booth triggered a review and the officials hit Taylor-Britt with a targeting call.
Suddenly, Minnesota had a new set of downs at the 7-yard line and Nebraska was without one of its best defenders for the rest of the game. Nebraska picked up 3 yards on the ground with Mohamed Ibrahim and then Morgan hit tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford at the back of the end zone for his first catch of the season and his second career touchdown.
Nebraska went three-and-out and went into halftime trailing 17-14.
How important is leading at half? PJ Fleck is 24-2 at Minn when leading at half, 0-16 when trailing. Scott Frost is 9-5 at Neb when leading at half, 2-13 when trailing. #huskers
— Andy Kendeigh (@AKendeighKETV) December 12, 2020
“It definitely influenced the game,” JoJo Domann said. “We were trying to get off the field, get our offense the ball, and then they bust one on the first play. Then with Cam, losing a great player like Cam, and missing out on that interception, it’s just this is a tale of the game, right? Just missed opportunities. We’ve got to find ways to win in every aspect of the game at every point in the game.”
Poor tackling technique has been a problem for Nebraska all season long. In this very game, Luke Reimer knocked himself out of the game by leading with his helmet, and late in the game Deontai Williams nearly gave up a touchdown because he tried to blow the receiver up instead of wrapping him up. This was the second time this season Taylor-Britt was ejected for targeting.
“I don’t get much feedback on those things,” Scott Frost said. “I haven’t even seen it. All I saw was on the big screen. It just seems like those things work against us quite a bit for some reason. Just that play alone, we’re probably going to go in at halftime ahead and it’s probably a different second half. But those are the breaks in football and just hope some of them go our way.”
Most will agree the targeting rule needs some fine-tuning. Part of the helmet contact was the result of the offensive player dropping his own helmet. Defenders have a small target to hit these days and its often moving. However, everyone on that defense knows the rule as it currently stands. Taylor-Britt had every chance to break down and wrap Morgan up without giving up any more yardage. He chose to launch himself forward instead and got unlucky.
“We weren’t expecting it and when it happened I just went over to him and just let him know that we’ve got his back no matter what,” Dicaprio Bootle said. “That’s forever and that’s always. A guy like him who puts so much into the game and is so passionate about the game, I’m sure that hurts him to have the game taken away from him. We just let him know, keep his head up and he’ll be back.”
The Huskers only managed three points in the second half. The go-ahead touchdown allowed the Golden Gophers to play with a lead the rest of the way. Perhaps the game plays out differently had Nebraska held Minnesota to three there. We’ll never know.
The one saving grace is the targeting call happened shortly before halftime, which means Nebraska will get Taylor-Britt back for the start of its plus-one game, whichever team that ends up being against.
Still, it wiped away a third-down stop and put at least four more points on the board for the Gophers when Nebraska had a chance to take the momentum into halftime. That’s why the targeting call on Cam Taylor-Britt is this week’s Play of the Game.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.