MINNEAPOLIS - Needing to win two of its remaining three regular-season games in order to become bowl eligible, there was zero room for error for Nebraska entering Saturday’s road showdown at Minnesota.
It only took a handful of plays for the Huskers to quickly squander their opportunity in a 54-21 blowout defeat to the Golden Gophers, who notched just their second Big Ten victory of the year.
It was a day where seemingly everything went against NU from the opening kickoff until the final whistle, as Minnesota’s previously stagnant offense lit up the Blackshirts for its best overall outing of the season.
When all was said and done, the Gophers scored more points (54) and gained more total yards (515) and rushing yards (410) than they had in any of their previous nine contests.
On the other side of the ball, junior quarterback Tanner Lee was taken out of the game at halftime due to an illness, leaving redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien to try and muster a comeback in the most extensive playing time of his career.
As the final score indicated, that comeback never stood a chance.
It took all of one play for Minnesota to claim the lead, as Rodney Smith took back the game’s opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown just 13 seconds in.
The good news was the Huskers were able to answer right back with a 12-play, 75-yard march and tying it up on a one-yard touchdown run by Mikale Wilbon. The score marked NU’s first rushing touchdown since the second quarter of the Illinois game on Sept. 29.
Minnesota again wasted no time taking the lead right back, as the Gophers responded with a 12-play, 75-yard drive of their own and scored on a three-yard option keeper by quarterback Demry Croft to make 14-7 with 3:08 left in the first quarter.
Nebraska was again able to fire right back with a 44-yard pass to De’Mornay Pierson-El that moved the ball down to the UM 26-yard line. Facing a fourth-and-inches from the six, though, Wilbon was stuffed for a loss.
That quickly turned into a 73-yard touchdown run right up the gut on another option keeper by Croft, and a fumbled snap on the point after attempt left the score 20-7 with 11:42.
The Gophers made it 27-7 one series later on an 11-yard run by Kobe McCrary with 6:40 left in the half, and it looked like the route was officially on.
Desperately needing a response, the Huskers were able to get one with a 10-play, 90-yard drive that needed a fourth-down pass to J.D. Spielman to stay alive and ended with a 14-yard touchdown toss to tight end Tyler Hoppes with 2:50 to go in the half.
Yet it was Minnesota who got the last laugh of the half with 36-yard field goal by Emmit Carpenter to make it a 30-14 advantage at halftime.
The Gophers came into the game ranked 119th nationally in total offense at 319.2 yards per game and 101st nationally in scoring at 23.4 points per game. By the end of the half, UM had already racked up 30 points and 311 yards of offense.
Lee - who completed 13-of-18 passes for 174 yards and a touchdown in the first half - was replaced by O’Brien to start the third quarter, and the official word from Nebraska’s staff during the game was that Lee “was not feeling well” at halftime and was eventually ruled out for the remainder of the game.
Regardless of the quarter, the Huskers’ defense still couldn’t do much of anything to slow down Minnesota’s offense. The Gophers punched in another McCrary touchdown run from nine yards out and then added a 30-yard field goal by Carpenter to head into the fourth quarter with a 40-14 lead.
Nebraska finally got back on the scoreboard on a one-yard run by Devine Ozigbo that cut it to a 19-point deficit with 10:17 left to play.
Just as the game had gone all day, though, the Gophers immediately put an end to any NU momentum with a 64-yard scamper and then a one-yard touchdown run by Croft to make it 47-21.
McCrary later broke free for a 43-yard touchdown again right up the middle to make it 54-21 with 3:15 left in the game.
The Huskers will travel to Penn State next week. Kickoff for that game has yet to be announced.