MINNEAPOLIS — Judging solely by the TCF Bank Stadium scoreboard on Saturday night, Minnesota cranked open the floodgates on Nebraska after halftime by outscoring the Huskers 20-0 in the third quarter.
Really, though, the Gophers set the stage for the dominating stretch in the second, when they ran the ball at will. Even if the damage — 159 rushing yards on 17 second-quarter carries — didn’t immediately turn into piles of points, it set the tone and also put the Husker defense repeatedly in vulnerable positions that got exploited as the game progressed.
All week, Nebraska defenders like senior cornerback Lamar Jackson harped on the need to have good eye disciple and not get caught in the Gophers’ run action, lest their talented receiving corps get open down the field.
The problem for the Huskers was that, right from the start, they were unable to control Minnesota’s running game at the point of attack. As the first half wore on and UM continued to rack up yardage — especially in that second quarter — NU had to try to commit more and more resources to get stops on the ground.
“I feel like we were out of position a lot of times,” senior defensive tackle Darrion Daniels said. “Just have to learn our fits and get it fixed. Once you’re out of position, it messes up everything. It messes up what people see and we get knocked out of position.”
At that point, it was only a matter of time before Minnesota struck.
That time, it turns out, was the first play of the third quarter and early in several second-half drives.
On the first play after intermission, quarterback Tanner Morgan play-faked and hit Tyler Johnson down the field for 45 yards.
On the first play of Minnesota’s next drive, tight end Jake Paulson had a walk-in 47-yard touchdown after Nebraska’s defense bit hard on another play-fake and had nobody remotely close to him when Morgan threw the ball, but he dropped a pass right on his hands.
That didn’t matter, UM marched and scored anyway. They did the same on their next drive, too, using primarily the run game to extend their lead to 28-0.
Later in the third quarter, though, again on the first play of a drive, the Gophers went back to the play-action game for a big play. Morgan play-faked went down the field for Johnson up the right sideline for 45 yards that set the Gophers up first-and-goal at the 1. One play later, it was 34-0.
“We didn’t have very disciplined eyes on defense on a couple of plays and we gave them some easy throws,” Frost said. “We were lucky they dropped one because the guy was completely uncovered.”
Steven M. Sipple and Parker Gabriel preview Nebraska’s game Saturday night at Minnesota and take questions.
This is life when a defense can’t stop the run and the offense knows it.
The Huskers started the season off strong up front, allowing 82 rushing yards and just a smidge more than 2 per carry over their first three games. In four Big Ten games, though, Nebraska has been among the leakiest units in the league.
Erik Chinander’s defense is allowing 267 rushing yards per game and 5.9 per carry (both 13th in the Big Ten ahead of only Illinois) and has given up a conference-worst 12 rushing touchdowns.
“Going into this game, we felt like they were really good up front, but if we could get them moving sideways, we thought we could have success with the outside zone,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. “We mixed some things up with our looks from what we did last week. … We felt like we could get to the perimeter if we blocked well and our o-line, tight ends and wideouts did a terrific job with that all night.”
That left Nebraska facing a question for which it had no good answer.
“It goes back, to me, that they were running three or four run schemes, we knew coming in that they ran them and they worked,” Frost said. “When those things happen, you have to bring more people up into the box to try to get the run stopped and then all of the other stuff works off of it. I give them credit for that.
“We need to be more like that on offense and we need to be more physical on defense so they can’t put us in that situation.”
* Broc Bando took over for Trent Hixson at left guard late in the second quarter and played the rest of the game, marking the first non-injury-related change on the offensive line this season.
Hixson had a tough night overall and got bowled over by Minnesota senior defensive lineman Sam Renner on his final snap of the night.
Bando played the final 38 snaps of the night.
* Nebraska had 24 chunk plays against Illinois alone on Sept. 21, the high-water mark of the Frost era here, but has logged just 17 in three games since. The three-game averages of 4.4 yards per play and 283 yards per game in that stretch would rank No. 127 and No. 126 nationally, respectively.
* Freshman walk-on linebacker Luke Reimer, the former Lincoln North Star standout, appeared in his fifth game of the season, meaning he’s no longer eligible for a redshirt.
That was probably a foregone conclusion given Reimer’s entrenched role on special teams, but it’s still an impressive rise for the local rookie.
The other freshmen who have already exceeded the redshirt threshold are wide receiver Wan'Dale Robinson, outside linebacker Garrett Nelson and defensive back Quinton Newsome.