MINNEAPOLIS — Patrick O’Brien’s first extended time under center for Nebraska came quickly and unexpectedly on Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis.
The redshirt freshman said he was in the locker room at halftime of the Huskers’ 54-21 loss to Minnesota when he heard starter Tanner Lee was receiving medical treatment.
All of a sudden, the second half kicked off and O’Brien trotted out with the starting offense.
“Keep playing football, that’s all you can really ask,” O’Brien told reporters of his mindset taking over in a game the Huskers already trailed 30-14 at the intermission. “Just take advantage of the moment you’re given and just take it a play at a time. It was a great experience for me, but we also have to get better as a team.”
O’Brien completed 12-of-18 for 137 yards. He made accurate downfield throws to Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman, but was also sacked six times, including three on the afternoon’s final drive alone.
“I thought Patrick actually played with some confidence,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “I wish we could have protected him. That’s the kind of game I hate being in, where you’re just throwing — drop-back pass — and they just tee off on the lineman and can get after the quarterback. It’s a hard way to play.
“In saying all that, I thought he made some nice plays and it was probably, for him down the road, great for him to get in the game.”
O'Brien dropped back to pass on 29 of NU's 36 second-half snaps. Outside the six sacks, he rushed five times for gains of 9, 12, 14, 6 and 0 yards.
"We were one-dimensional," Riley said. "Not able, especially after we got far behind, to be able to even try to be balanced."
Early fourth-down failure: The Huskers looked to be on their way to tying Minnesota for the second time Saturday afternoon.
Trailing 14-7 early in the second quarter, Nebraska had marched into the red zone — thanks partly to a 44-yard catch-and-run from senior wide receiver De’Mornay Pierson-El — and got down to the UM 7 on a 6-yard completion from Lee to JD Spielman. The play was originally ruled a first down but was reviewed and subsequently changed to fourth-and-1.
NU tried to run it over the right side and junior tailback Mikale Wilbon was stoned at the line of scrimmage.
“We got a loaded front, a bear front, and that was something we had practiced,” NU offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf said. “We didn’t get any push on the front side of it, the safety showed up. If we get some movement on it, we get the yard. We’ve got to be able to get a yard, and that happened to us often. It happened two or three times in the game.”
The Gophers rushed four times for 20 yards before sophomore quarterback Demry Croft ripped off a 73-yard touchdown run. Just like that, it was 20-7.
“That was a bad feeling,” Riley said. “Who knows really at that point what direction that game might, could go, but at that juncture, that did not feel good.”
From the fourth-down play on, Minnesota outscored NU 40-14.
“We never really did stop them from there, even if they had a long field,” Riley said. “It kept mounting from there.”
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Weber thought Barry deserved to start: Senior linebacker Chris Weber leads Nebraska in tackles and had started every game this season until Saturday.
Sophomore Mohamed Barry started next to Dedrick Young at inside linebacker after Weber didn’t practice much this week. Weber was limited to noncontact work by a neck stinger that caused weakness and numbness in his left shoulder and didn’t even know if he was going to be able to play until Friday, according to Riley.
“Once I got cleared, I told them I thought Mo should start for how he’s worked all week in practice,” Weber said. “We rolled with that, and I did the best I could with the shoulder.”
Weber made his first appearance in the second quarter and finished with five tackles, while Barry had seven.
Kick return a bad way to start: Minnesota running back Rodney Smith fielded the opening kickoff Saturday at the goal line near the right hash and started straight ahead.
As he approached the first wave of blockers, a gaping hole opened up. He raced through, passed a diving tackle attempt from Nebraska’s Eli Sullivan, and was into the open field, angling toward the left sideline once he broke free.
“He just made a good play and you have to give him credit for that,” Nebraska senior kicker Drew Brown said. “The kick was in a good spot, our guys were hustling down the field and, hey, just had a good scheme against us. It’s never a good thing when the returner goes untouched to the end zone.”
Entering play, Brown had 27 touchbacks in 47 kickoff attempts.
It was the first kick returned for a touchdown against NU since USC’s Adoree Jackson returned one 98 yards in the 2014 Holiday Bowl.
Captains try to rally the troops: Nebraska junior offensive guard Jerald Foster, a team co-captain, struck an optimistic tone about the Huskers’ final two regular-season games. He said “most” players on the team are on the same page.
And for those who aren’t?
“We’ll get them there,” he said. “That’s what leadership is. That’s when you get behind the guys who might have a little doubt. You push them forward and tell them we’re still going to be able to do something with ourselves.
“If you can’t do that as a leader, then you’re not worthy of being a captain.”
Foster said junior defensive tackle Mick Stoltenberg brought the team together in the locker room.
“He said, ‘Don’t forget that we’re here for each other,’” Foster said. “He took that, I think, right out of most of the older guys’ mouths. At this point, if you go your own way and say this year’s over, then we’re going to have bad games the next two weeks.
“We’re going to pull together, we’re going to get ready for Penn State and be ready to play.”