MINNEAPOLIS - After two weeks of speculation, senior quarterback Taylor Martinez finally made his return to the starting lineup Saturday against Minnesota for first time in over a month. Unfortunately for Martinez and Nebraska, his comeback was one of the more forgettable games of the season for the Huskers.
Despite jumping out to a quick 10-0 lead to open the game, Nebraska was beaten up all day up front on both sides of the ball en route to a 34-23 upset victory by the Gophers. The Huskers (5-2 overall, 2-1 Big Ten Conference) gave up more than 400 yards of offense, including nearly 300 on the ground, to a Minnesota team that came in ranked 11th in the conference averaging just 327.9 yards per game.
Things were just as bad offensively, as NU managed barely over 300 total yards and was never able to establish any type of rhythm throughout the day.
"We just got pushed around and we didn't tackle well," head coach Bo Pelini said. "On defense, we had way too many breakdowns. I'm talking basic football that we couldn't execute and didn't execute. This game comes down to blocking and tackling, and we didn't do that very well."
As rough as most of the game was for Nebraska, things couldn't have started much better for Martinez in his first couple drives back as the starter. After a 42-yard bomb to Kenny Bell that moved the ball to the Minnesota 2-yard line, sophomore running back Imani Cross barreled into the end zone to put the Huskers up 7-0 just 2:34 into the game.
A quick three-and-out by the defense led to a 45-yard field goal by Pat Smith with 7:06 remaining in the first quarter to increase the lead to 10-0, and it seemed like NU was well on its way to an easy victory. That all changed in a hurry, though.
The Golden Gophers responded by marching 75 yards on 13 plays - 12 of which were runs - and scored on a 1-yard quarterback sneak by Mitch Leidner to cut the deficit by 10-7 going into the second quarter. Nebraska's offense would be stifled for the rest of the half, while Minnesota continued to churn out big chunks of yards on the ground and convert timely pass plays to dominate the second quarter.
Sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson, who rotated in with Leidner, eventually gave the Gophers their first lead of the day with a 33-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Engel on a fourth-and-11 conversion with 6:21 to go in the half. Minnesota later bumped that lead up to 17-10 with a 26-yard field goal by Chris Hawthorne that was set up by a fumble by junior running back Ameer Abdullah at midfield.
"The way the game started, we started with such great momentum," Pelini said. "If you look at how their first scoring drive started, it was all missed tackles. That got them going and that's the way it works."
Needing to get some sort of positive momentum to take into halftime, Nebraska was finally able to get back on the board with a 42-yard field goal by Smith with three seconds left on the clock to make it 17-13. Considering that Minnesota racked up 161 rushing yards, recorded two sacks, and held the ball for more than 16 minutes of the opening half, the score wasn't as bad as it could have been for the Huskers.
Even with his hot start, it was definitely a rough first two quarters for Martinez in his return. He completed 11-of-17 passes for just 101 yards - nearly half of which coming on his deep ball to Bell on the first drive - and rushed four times for minus-22 yards.
"I thought I threw the ball pretty well for playing my first game in five weeks," Martinez said. "I thought my rhythm was there and I think everything was there for me. But we just couldn't come together as a team."
As bad as things were for the first two quarters, things didn't get any better for Nebraska in the third. A quick three-and-out by the Huskers and a nice Minnesota punt return/facemask penalty on NU gave the Gophers the ball at the Husker 38 to start the half. From there they needed just five plays to reach the end zone on a 1-yard sneak by Nelson to make it 24-13. Minnesota then made it a two-touchdown game on its next possession with a 45-yard field goal by Hawthorne with 2:33 left in the third quarter.
Just when it seemed as if the game was getting out of reach, Martinez came up with his biggest play since the opening drive with a huge 35-yard run down to the Minnesota 26. After another nice 16-yard run by Abdullah, Martinez found tight end Jake Cotton alone in the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown pass to cut the deficit to 27-20 going into the fourth and final quarter.
Though it gave some some yards in doing so, Nebraska's defense didn't break and forced a Minnesota punt to get the ball back at its own 13. The Huskers used three big plays - a 22-yard run by Abdullah, a 32-yard catch by Quincy Enunwa and another 22-yard scamper by Abdullah - to march deep into Gopher territory, but they had to settle for a 37-yard field goal by Smith with 9:26 to play.
Down 27-23 and desperately needing to come up with another stop, Nebraska caught a huge break when a wide-open Minnesota tight end Maxx Williams dropped what would have been a first-down catch, giving the Huskers the ball back at their own 9 with just under six minutes remaining. The offense was unable to do anything with the opportunity, though, as a quick three-and-out gave the Gophers the ball back at the NU 34 after a 26-yard shank punt by Sam Foltz.
Minnesota put the nail in the coffin by driving down to the goal line before Nelson punched in one last touchdown from a yard out with 48 seconds left to give the game its final score.
Martinez ended up 16-of-30 passing for 139 yards and an interception while rushing eight times for 16 yards. The lone highlight for NU's offense was Abdullah, who rushed 19 times for a game-high 165 yards. Minnesota's David Cobb had his best game of the season by far, rushing 31 times for 138 yards.
"Taylor was the least of our problems," Pelini said. "The inconsistency we had up front, we didn't get into a rhythm, we weren't very good on early downs, which hurt us, and the amount of dropped passes we had was inexcusable. Those kill drives."
The Huskers will try to regroup for next week's home game against Northwestern, which fell to 4-4 overall and 0-4 in league play after an overtime loss to Iowa on Saturday.