MINNEAPOLIS — Forget "strain." Forget, "It takes time." Forget all the ribbing Bob Diaco has taken for his defense’s play on the field and the words he speaks off it.
The simple fact of the matter is that what happened Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium might go down as the worst performance by a Nebraska defensive unit in 128 seasons of Husker football.
It’s not the most points Nebraska has ever given up. It’s not the most yards. But the absolute domination, the complete disappointment against an offense that, to be blunt, has had trouble moving the ball against tackling dummies most of the season, was all encompassing.
"Just unacceptable," Diaco said in a tunnel after the game. "Spectacularly unacceptable. Poor."
Diaco was subdued. As much so as he's been after any game this season. Often quiet enough that his voice was difficult to hear over the shouts of the Minnesota cheerleaders celebrating down the hall.
The man hired in the winter and paid $825,000 in his first season to fix Nebraska's defense struggled for answers for seven minutes as his head coach tried to make sense of 54-21 in a nearby room.
Really, what could he say?
"This moment can't define these players. This moment can't define this staff," Diaco said. "It's just a moment. It's a big moment — there's no minimizing it. It's terrible. But if you have more football to play, which we do... (the players) have to use this time. You have to give it its due, you've got to give it its gravity and magnitude.
"You watched the bottom. It was terrible. But we can't let it define us."
Whether it defines this Nebraska season or serves as a turning point for better days remains to be seen. But on a day when Minnesota quarterback Demry Croft nearly tripled his career-best in rushing yards in one game; on a day when two Gophers broke the 100-yard mark on the ground and a third nearly got there; on a day when a Minnesota offense averaging 319 yards per game nearly got there by halftime, definitive was written on Minnesota's scoreboard.
Croft rushed for 183 yards and three touchdowns on 14 carries, often loping untouched after pulling the ball from his running back's belly on basic zone read plays. That running back, Rodney Smith, still got 24 carries on his way to 134 yards. Backup Kobe McCrary entered late and rushed for 93 yards, including the final insult — a 43-yard touchdown run with 3:21 left that happened in the time it took media members to get from the press box to the field.
The Gophers, owners of a 3.8-yard-per-carry average coming into Saturday's game, averaged nine against the Huskers.
"I've been serving the game since I was a child," Diaco said. "And I've had very high moments, I've had extreme success, I've had average times, I've had below-average times, and I've had terrible times. And this would be one of those terrible, terrible moments."
Nebraska was deflated from the start, when Smith took the opening kickoff back 100 yards for a touchdown. While it spared Nebraska's defense from allowing even more yards, the tone had been set.
"Crushing. Crushing. It's a fragile group, just from how the season has gone. It's hard. I just love them, and I feel terrible," Diaco said. "And everyone wants something good to happen, then the train jumped off the tracks and it was very hard to put on."
What else could he say?