10 things we learned from Nebraska's loss to Minnesota
Here are 10 of our biggest takeaways from Nebraska's 24-17 loss to Minnesota on Saturday afternoon.
1. Nebraska cannot sustain success
There’s a reason that it’s been 15 months since Nebraska has won back-to-back games and 13 months since doing in against two straight Big Ten opponents.
Dating back to the first half of the 2016 season, the Huskers have been unable to maintain any semblance of consistent success. One step forward, two steps back has become the program's hallmark over the past four years, and Saturday was yet another example of why.
Nebraska had just played its most complete game of the Scott Frost era last time out at Purdue, and it was back home facing a depleted Minnesota team that was limping to this season’s finish line.
The Huskers were supposed to win this game. They had to win this game.
Instead, they once again reverted to all of the same infuriating mistakes and, at times, looked like a team that didn’t even know they had a game to play on Saturday.
Penalties, self-inflicted miscues, turnovers, and assignment breakdowns in all phases were the theme of the game from the opening kickoff.
As a result, a golden opportunity to finally establish some positive momentum going into the offseason was thrown out the window into the snow.
2. Undermanned Minnesota played with more fight
Having not played a game in three weeks due to a COVID-19 outbreak on the team, Minnesota had to piece together a roster for its trip to Lincoln on Saturday.
A report from the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press surfaced before the game that the Golden Gophers would be without 33 players against Nebraska. Among those absences were two starting offensive linemen, and UM was down to just four available defensive tackles and only two tight ends.
That left Minnesota with two offensive linemen making their first career starts, including true freshman Aireontae Ersery at right tackle.
Yet all of that didn’t seem to matter much for the Gophers, as they played with more fire and want-to all day in a game which they could have easily packed it in and gone through the motions.
3. It’s hard to explain the play-calling
When the ball kicked off on Saturday, the temperature inside Memorial Stadium was 29 degrees – with a “feels like” temp of 19 degrees – and winds at 14 mph.
Nebraska was facing a Minnesota defense that was the worst in FBS in stopping the run, ranking 127thout of 127 teams with an average of 6.82 yards allowed per rush this season.
Oh, and the Gophers were without their starting nose tackle and were down to just four available defensive tackles.
So what did the Huskers do? They threw the ball 29 times, including 18 attempts in the first half, despite averaging 5.5 yards per carry. They also averaged 3.8 yards per pass attempt.
Of Nebraska’s 22 first-down plays, only 12 were rushes. In comparison, Minnesota ran it on 25 of its 27 first-down snaps. Even with the runs NU did call, the majority were to the sideline rather than straight ahead.
The most baffling series came at the end of the third quarter when Nebraska took over after a defensive stop with just 37 seconds until changing field direction and getting the wind at its back.
Rather than run it and play with the wind, the Huskers called three straight passes, and Adrian Martinez was sacked and fumbled on the third to spot the Gophers at the NU 39-yard line.
Frost said there were some plays he would have likely called differently in hindsight but didn’t think the conditions were bad enough to change decisions on when and how often to throw the ball.
4. Adrian Martinez doesn’t look right
A player who has struggled with injuries for the past four years, Martinez didn’t look right from the jump on Saturday.
After missing a drive last week at Purdue with what appeared to be an injury to his right throwing shoulder, the junior quarterback had to come out again on NU’s second series vs. Minnesota with a left wrist injury.
Martinez came back in on the next drive, but he hardly looked like the player who had completed 41 of his past 50 passes in two straight promising starts.
He missed on two key passes that could have resulted in touchdowns, and his accuracy was off all game on even the simplest throws.
Martinez still rushed 15 times for a team-high 96 yards and a touchdown, but he seemed to be favoring his right shoulder much of the game. After a 24-yard scamper in the third quarter, Martinez landed right on that shoulder and stayed on the turf for a few seconds before getting back on his feet.
Frost said Martinez was not limited at all in the game and had a good full week of practice. Martinez blamed himself for NU’s loss and didn’t use injuries as an excuse.
But he was clearly not the same player he was even a week ago.
5. The mental mistakes keep on happening
Nebraska is now seven games into the 2020 season, yet the same mental mistakes from Week 1 continue to bite the Huskers two months later.
In the first 7:30 of play on Saturday, NU had a nine-yard fumbled lateral on its first offensive play, a defensive personal foul on third down to extend a Minnesota drive, and then threw an interception deep in their territory to set up a Gopher touchdown.
In the final three minutes of the second quarter, Deontai Williams dropped an interception at the goal line, and then Cam Taylor-Britt was ejected for targeting one play later. That was Nebraska’s third targeting ejection of the season.
The penalty turned a likely field goal try into a first-and-goal for the Gophers, who scored on a touchdown pass two plays later. When the Huskers got the ball back, Martinez missed a wide-open Oliver Miller that would have almost certainly set up a tying field goal try, if not more.
There were plenty of other examples to add to that list, too. Even in Nebraska’s wins, there have been glaring miscues it’s had to overcome.
The Huskers haven’t figured out how to stay out of their own way all season, and it’s probably the main reason why they’re 2-5 and just secured their fifth losing record in the last six years.
6. Third downs were killers once again
On the surface, Nebraska and Minnesota were equally bad on third downs, as both went just 4-of-13 for the game.
The difference was when the Huskers failed to convert, things went very poorly.
After starting the game picking up four of its first six third downs, NU went on to fail on its final eight third-down conversion tries the rest of the game.
A big reason for that was Nebraska’s average third-down distance was 7.8 yards, and it only averaged 3.5 yards per attempt. NU was 0-for-6 on attempts from nine yards out.
One of those failed conversions ended in a sack, and another was a Martinez fumble recovered by UM at the Husker 40.
While the defense was solid for the most part on third downs, they did give up two third-and-longs (9-plus yards) and didn’t record their first true three-and-out stop until 7:33 left in the game.
7. William Przystup’s unexpected absence was noticed
It wasn’t until Nebraska’s specialists took the field for pre-game warmups that we learned punter William Przystup would not be available against Minnesota.
Frost only said the junior was “not available” when asked about Pryzstup’s status after the game.
In his absence, the Huskers turned to freshman walk-on Tyler Crawford as its starting punter on Saturday. The Broken Arrow, Okla., native punted five times on the day for an average of 38.4 yards.
It was definitely a mixed bag, though, as an eight-yard shank on his second attempt was balanced out by a booming 61-yarder that pinned Minnesota at its own eight.
The Huskers also had to fill Przystup’s shoes as the holder on field goals and extra points. That job went to redshirt freshman punter Grant Detlefsen. The former Lincoln (Neb.) Southeast product went unnoticed in the game, meaning he did his job.
Detlefsen also made a nice play on his first hold, handling a low snap on a PAT.
8. Casey Rogers’ development has been a bright spot
In a season where Nebraska will look for any positives, the progress made by Casey Rogers has been an encouraging silver lining.
Not only did the redshirt freshman defensive tackle finish with four tackles and share a tackle for loss, but he also batted two passes that helped the Huskers stay in the game.
After sniffing out a third-down screen pass, Rogers got his first PBU when he knocked down on a fourth-down throw and set Nebraska up for its go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter.
Later on in the third, 6-foot-4, 300-pounder batted a third-down pass that UM quarterback Tanner Morgan likely would have completed for a first down.
Rogers now ranks 10th on the team with 23 tackles, is tied for seventh with 3.0 tackles for loss, and is tied for fifth with 1.0 sack. His two batted passes on Saturday moved him up to sixth on the team in pass breakups.
9. Losing the halftime lead was telling
Morgan’s four-yard touchdown pass to take a 17-14 lead into halftime was a big deal in terms of shifting the momentum back in Minnesota’s favor.
But it also set up some interesting history to play out once more.
The Gophers improved to 25-2 under head coach PJ Fleck when leading at halftime. Conversely, UM is 0-16 under Fleck when trailing at the half.
Along with that, Nebraska dropped to 2-14 under Frost when losing at the break. Frost is 9-5 at NU when owning a halftime lead.
There were plenty of reasons why things continued to go south for the Huskers in the second half, but losing that momentum just before the half set the table for some notable trends to continue.
10. NU honored 17 seniors, and Connor Culp was not among them
As the time moves closer for 2020 seniors to decide whether to take advantage of their free year of eligibility and return to school next season or move on, Nebraska has a pretty good idea of at least one senior who will be back in ‘21
Kicker Connor Culp, a joined NU as a graduate transfer from LSU this offseason, was not among the 17 seniors honored before Saturday’s game.
That leads to the easy assumption that Culp plans on returning for another year, which would be a nice boost for the Huskers’ special teams.
The Phoenix, Ariz., native has been everything Nebraska had hoped this season. Though he missed his first try on Saturday from 32 yards out, Culp made his second attempt from 30 to make it a one-score game in the fourth quarter.
Culp is now 13-15 on field goals this season, and he had made nine in a row before his third-quarter miss on Saturday. He’s also made all 16 of his extra points.