Hail Varsity staff members Greg Smith, Jacob Padilla and Derek Peterson offer some final takeaways from Nebraska's (1-6, 1-4 Big Ten) 53-28 win over Minnesota (3-4, 0-4 Big Ten).
Being in the right place at the right time. That’s one of those clichés that you hear so often but when a team is stuck in the rut of a 10-game losing streak, you seem to never hear about that concept.
That was the case for the Huskers until Saturday afternoon when they took down Minnesota, 53-28. There seemed to be plays that just bounced Nebraska’s way by chance. Were those bounces luck or were they created by the Huskers playing a lot more fundamentally sound on defense?
"When you are doing what you are supposed to be, good things tend to happen," senior linebacker Luke Gifford said. "When you are where you are supposed to be then stuff like that happens. Like Dedrick [Young], that tipped ball. He was at the right place at the right time and made the play. It definitely has a lot to do with it.”
Dicaprio Bootle tipped ball came with 6:52 left in the game and Young was able to reel in. That play largely represented the opportunistic play on display by Nebraska at times on Saturday.
“We did our assignments and not trying to do anyone else job," Bootle said. "We had to execute. There were a couple of times where one guy didn’t [do] his job or I didn’t do my job and a play happened here or there but that’s football. Something is always going to happen regardless of how bad you beat a team.
"We just had to do a good job of doing our own job. That’s what we did today.”
Defensively, there were still mistakes made. However, there are positive things for the coaching staff to point to. One of those things is how being in “the right place at the right time” is really a matter of playing assignment-sound football.
Last weekend, Stanley Morgan Jr. finished with just two catches, his lowest total since his sophomore year. After five 100-yard receiving games as a junior, Morgan hadn’t cracked 100 yards through his first six games as a senior.
Meanwhile, heading into Saturday, JD Spielman had totaled 135, 209 and 76 yards in his last three games and was on pace to become Nebraska’s first 1,000-yard receiver, surpassing the school record Morgan set last year.
Offensive coordinator and receivers coach Troy Walters addressed Morgan’s recent lack of production after practice on Wednesday.
“He’s been awesome,” Walters said. “Probably doesn’t have the receiving yards or the receptions or the stats that he wants, been frustrated with 0-6, but he’s a true pro.”
He got those stats on Saturday, however. Morgan exploded for 10 catches on 13 targets for 163 yards and two touchdowns. Spielman was solid too with eight catches for 77 yards and a score, but on this day, Morgan was once again Nebraska’s star receiver.
“In our offense, it’s easy to distribute the ball to a lot of different guys,” freshman Quarterback Adrian Martinez said. “I think today it happened to be Stan and I’m definitely happy for him.”
Midway through the third quarter, Nebraska was clinging to a six-point lead after 22 unanswered points by the Golden Gophers. That’s when Morgan took things into his own hands.
After two big runs by Maurice Washington that put the Huskers in Minnesota territory, Martinez dropped back and found Morgan for a 37-yard touchdown. To push the lead to 14, Nebraska went for two and called Morgan’s name again. The senior hauled in the ball through interference from his defender.
A stop and a field goal pushed the lead to 17, then Dedrick Young more or less sealed the victory with an interception at the goal line. However, Nebraska wasn’t close to done scoring. Three plays later, Martinez hit Morgan again and he ran 67 yards to paydirt to blow the game wide open.
Morgan had last season’s 54-21 loss to the Gophers on mind on Saturday.
"It hurt last year to see them run up the score on us, so it's a little bit of payback,” he said.
Morgan decided Nebraska’s losing streak had gone on long enough, and in the process of leading the Huskers to their first win of the season, he reminded everyone that he’s still one of the best receivers in the Big Ten.
"We just came out there today and we weren't taking losing for an answer,” Morgan said. “We weren't going to take that 'L' today. Not today. It's a certain point where you just have got to go out there and get that win. That's what we felt today and I felt the team was great.”
Heading into Saturday, the Huskers hadn't scored points on back-to-back possessions in a first half all season long.
The ability to string together drives and start strong had just as much to do with Nebraska's first win of the season as anything. A 9-yard touchdown dart from quarterback Adrian Martinez to wideout JD Spielman with 1:58 left in the second quarter gave the Huskers a 28-0 lead, their largest of the season.
To find the last time Nebraska had that kind of a lead on a football field, you'd have to go back 700 days. And the Huskers had this as a cushion right from the jump.
In his postgame press conference, Minnesota coach PJ Fleck talked about not being in a position to overcome a start like that. It sounded exactly like what Scott Frost has been saying for weeks.
Nebraska opened the season down 14-0 to Colorado. It fell down 17-0 to Troy a week later, 46-0 to Michigan, 27-7 to Purdue and 20-3 to Wisconsin. Brandon Vogel has written at length about Nebraska's need to play with a lead and Saturday showcased just how helpful it can be.
The Huskers scored in seven plays on their opening drive, four plays on their third drive and nine plays on their fourth drive.
“Just having that faith, knowing that we can score, that we’re going to score, and we’re going to pull this game out," Martinez said of the offense's approach. "Staying strong in our will, and knowing the work we put in during the week is going to pay off. Just stick with, know what we can accomplish and we went out there and did it.”
Everything fell into place from there. Nebraska got punchy on offense, able to string blows and play-calls together thanks to the cushion. The defense pinned its ears back and started flying to the football on first and second down, then dialing up pressures on third. In the second quarter, Minnesota was 1-for-5 on third down. Credit a new pressure package — inside backer Collin Miller, outside backer Caleb Tannor and corner Cam Taylor played a large percentage of the Huskers' third downs — for that.
You can also credit that start for giving Nebraska the room to weather Minnesota's flurry of counter-punches in the third quarter. The Gopher offense scored 22 unanswered at one point and yet Nebraska never trailed.
“Everybody kind of knew with the practices that we’ve had, everybody is getting better and you can just see that," running back Devine Ozigbo said. "The game we played last Saturday, the practices on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and how locked in everybody was on Thursday and Friday, everybody had a pretty good feeling. We knew, ‘all right, this is a team right here that is willing to fight, willing to work and if we do what we need to do, we can go out there and change this whole situation.'"