MINNEAPOLIS — As the snow fell and the wind blew and October in the Big Ten West’s northernmost outpost delivered a night more befitting the holiday season than midseason, P.J. Fleck’s Minnesota team put a cold-weather beating on Nebraska.
The Golden Gophers, around whom much of the talk this week surrounded a talented set of wide receivers and a quarterback completing more than 70% of his passes, set the tone from the opening possession, when sixth-year running back Rodney Smith ripped off a 35-yard run right through the Husker defense on the game’s second snap.
Then he got 7 more. Then fifth-year senior Shannon Brooks rolled for 7 more. One play later, the Gophers had their first touchdown of the night.
This was the way it went for the home team, the one that showed up ready to rumble on the second-coldest October kickoff on record in TCF Bank Stadium’s 10-year history and delivered a 34-7 thumping to the visiting Huskers.
"I know we need to be a lot better at some basic things," Nebraska coach Scott Frost said. "We need to be a more physical team. We need to be a smarter team. I don't like coaching a team that's not the most physical on the football (field), and we weren't. I give them a ton of credit tonight, they were the more physical football team and we're going to do whatever we have to to address that."
The loss dropped Nebraska to 4-3 this season and 2-2 in Big Ten play as the program hits the first of two bye weeks with significant work to do if it wants to gets anywhere near the division title picture and a strong test just to get to six wins and bowl qualification. Minnesota, meanwhile, is 6-0 overall, 3-0 in Big Ten play, tied with Wisconsin (6-0, 3-0) for the West lead.
The Huskers have given up a combined 82 points in their two Big Ten losses.
Minnesota rolled up 220 of its 257 first-half yards — 110 for Smith, 73 for Brooks on just four carries, and 33 and a touchdown for sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim — as the Gophers built a 14-0 halftime lead that felt at least double the margin.
Overall, Minnesota finished with 322 rushing yards and Nebraska rushed for just 151. This was a game that was decided, squarely and decisively and for all to plainly see, in the trenches.
"They could rely on their run game, we couldn't rely on ours," Frost said. "We knew what run plays they were running and they ran them and they worked."
"That means your fundamentals aren't correct and that's on us," right tackle and captain Matt Farniok added. "Especially in the run game, it doesn't matter what's going on, we've just got to get more movement and create bigger holes for our running backs to hit because it's a talented bunch and a special group. We've got to make sure that we give them all the time they need and all the room they need. They're a special bunch and we need to start making them look that way."
Nebraska’s offense wasn’t totally without production in the opening 30 minutes with sophomore Noah Vedral at the helm and injured sophomore Adrian Martinez (left knee) in sweats on the sideline, but three opening drives stalled in Minnesota territory to turn early promise into repeated frustration.
First the Huskers petered out on downs after a 46-yard, game-opening march. On the second drive, a 51-yard catch-and-run from Vedral to junior JD Spielman was immediately followed by back-to-back sacks.
Then a block-in-the-back penalty on what would have been another eye-popping play from freshman Wan’Dale Robinson turned first-and-goal at the 4 into second-and-22 at the 45. Two plays later, the Huskers punted.
"Then in the two-minute drive, we could have had another first down to start the set and we jumped offside on the perimeter outside," Frost lamented. "Those things can't happen."
Bad turned worse in the second quarter when Robinson went to the turf with an apparent left ankle injury. The dynamic rookie, who had won two Big Ten freshman of the week awards in the past three weeks, was helped to the medical tent on the NU sideline and then carted from there to the visiting locker room with about 6 minutes remaining before halftime.
Nebraska tried to shake the early third-quarter doldrums its faced the past month by coming out of the locker room and running plays against air at the end of intermission like it does before games start.
It didn’t matter on this night. Quarterback Tanner Morgan hit wide receiver Tyler Johnson for 45 yards on the first play of the half off play-action and the Gophers covered the final 18 yards with four rushes to go up by three scores. Nebraska’s opening drive stalled and then a fake-punt, with Frost and NU desperately looking for any kind of spark, failed when up-back Austin Allen was tackled a yard short of the first down marker.
Nebraska's opponents have totaled 31 points — a field goal and four touchdowns — on their first second-half drives.
"Mentally right now it's just a gut-check," sophomore wide receiver Kade Warner said. "We had really high expectations coming into the season and right now it's a breaking point for our team and I think we're going to go the right direction after this. I'm excited to move forward for this next week-and-a-half. I think we're going to figure it out."
It all could not have looked much different than a year ago, when Frost notched his first career win and the Huskers kicked off a resurgent second half of the 2018 season by piling up 659 offensive yards and 53 points against a Gopher defense that could not keep up with Nebraska.
A year later, the Huskers simply did not have the physical ability to keep Minnesota from imposing its will. The visitors needed a 2-yard Dedrick Mills touchdown run early in the fourth quarter to ensure they would not suffer the program's first shutout loss in 23 years.
"Right now, we're having to pick and choose run plays and try to scheme too much instead of just winning up front and being able to rely on our run game," Frost said. "That needs to get fixed. It's not an easy fix, but we're going to go to work and try to get really good at something in the run game that we can lay our hat on. …
"Defensively, at times we made plays but their backs would run through holes full-speed and ours sometimes did and sometimes didn't. Their receivers went and blocked second-level guys. Ours sometimes did and sometimes didn't. Their guys stayed on blocks, our guy sometimes did and sometimes didn't. At the end of the day, if you can rely on a run game, you're going to put your team in good spots and then everything else in the offense works."
NU arrives at its bye week in need of the extra time not only to try to improve the overall health of its team but also to reconcile where the weaknesses of this group lie and how to go about overcoming them over the final five games of the season.
"I think the guys need to get away for a little bit and recuperate mentally and physically, but when we come back, the basics of what we do need to be better," Frost said. "We need to come off the ball better up front. We need to tackle better. We need to block better on the perimeter. We need to run more precise routes. All the little things.
"We can scheme up any offense or play or call or anything that you want to, but if those things aren't firing on all cylinders, it doesn't matter what we call."