By Tommy Rezac
MINNEAPOLIS – Rodney Smith took the opening kickoff 100 yards to the end zone to put Minnesota (5-5, 2-5 Big Ten) ahead 7-0 just 13 seconds into the game-turned-slaughter at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, MN on Saturday.
The Gophers ran for a season-high 409 yards, and flat out dominated Mike Riley’s lethargic Nebraska Cornhuskers (4-6, 3-4 Big Ten) 54-21 in front of 39,933 fans.
“It started bad, and went from there,” Riley said. “The opening kickoff was really a setback for us. It didn’t have to be a killer. It kept mounting from there…they did a nice job of running the football in multiple ways with (Smith) and the quarterback (Demry Croft). (Minnesota’s) versatility was good, and they were productive. We were one-dimensional, not able to especially after we got far behind, to even try and be balanced.
“That was kind of a quick summary of what I saw.”
Nebraska responded to the kickoff return on its ensuing drive, going 75 yards on 10 plays. The drive was capped off by a one-yard touchdown run by Mikale Wilbon, which tied the game at seven with 8:57 to go in the first quarter.
“We actually ran the ball okay the first couple of drives,” Riley said. “We responded, but we never got our feet on the ground at any time that I can remember defensively.”
Nebraska ran for 27 yards on its first drive, then 18 on its second. Then five. Then three. Then two.
The Huskers finished with only 69 rushing yards, led by Devine Ozigbo who had 37 yards on 10 carries. Wilbon also had 10 totes, going for 28 yards and a touchdown.
Back-up quarterback Patrick O’Brien, who replaced Tanner Lee at the start of the second half, had gained 41 yards with his legs, but was negated, because he was sacked six times; four times on the Huskers’ final drive.
Lee, who played a solid first half (13-of-18, 174 yards, TD) wasn’t seen on the sidelines at the start of the third quarter. The initial report was that Lee felt ill.
Nebraska’s medical staff has ruled out Tanner Lee for the remainder of the game.
— Nebraska Huskers (@Huskers) November 11, 2017
Riley said Lee experienced an “impact migraine.”
“I did not hear the word concussion necessarily,” Riley said. “I’ll certainly have more information for you later.
Riley didn’t know on what specific play Lee suffered the impact. While he did get knocked down a few times, Lee was never sacked.
“Tanner started feeling a little sick or something,” O’Brien said. “They just wanted to check on him, and they said, ‘If anything happens, just be ready to play.’”
O’Brien held his own in his first significant college action, completing 12-of-18 passes for 137 yards.
“I thought I played alright,” O’Brien said. “I missed a couple throws. It’s my first time really playing-playing. I thought I did alright, but there’s always room for improvement.”
O’Brien said Lee “looked fine” when they were discussing coverages on the sideline during the first half.
“I honestly couldn’t tell you,” O’Brien said when asked when Lee got hurt.
“I don’t think (Lee) feels great right now,” Riley said. “I went in (to the locker room) right away to see him. He doesn’t look bad, he’s not going to talk badly, he’s coherent. But, I don’t think he feels good right now.”
On the flip side, Minnesota quarterback Demry Croft, a sophomore and first-year starter, torched the Huskers with a career-high 197 rushing yards and three rushing touchdowns. He also completed 9-of-15 passes for 105 yards.
Smith ended up with 24 carries for 183 yards. Kobe McCrary tallied 10 carries for 93 yards and three rushing scores of his own.
The Gophers’ 409 yards on the ground are the most given up by a Husker defense since a 59-24 loss at Wisconsin in November 2014, when Melvin Gordon and the Badgers racked up 581 yards in the ground game.
183 rushing yards is the most rushing yards by any Minnesota quarterback in history.
“The whole day was just unacceptable,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “Spectacularly unacceptable. Poor.”
Many of the larger running plays, especially early on, came from the zone read or “read option” play, where the quarterback stands in the shotgun, and based on what the defense is showing, will either hand the ball off to the running back, or keep the ball himself.
Many times, Croft faked the hand off and had room to run.
“Our safety (Marquel Dismuke or Antonio Reed), at times, was responsible,” Riley said. “Our safety had a hard time on the edge making the play.”
Minnesota had touchdown runs of 3, 73, 11, 9, and 43 yards. After Nebraska tied the game early in the first quarter, the Gophers scored on all four of their drives in the first half. Three of those ended in touchdowns.
Minnesota also scored on four out of six drives in the second half; three of those were touchdowns.
Nebraska got behind 14-7. Then 20-7. 27-7. 30-14 at halftime. Minnesota outscored Nebraska 24-7 in the second half.
After the Gophers went up 14-7 late in the first quarter, Nebraska had driven all the way to the Minnesota 6-yard-line, but failed to convert on 4th down and 1.
“That was a bad feeling,” Riley said. “And who knows really, at that point, what direction this game could go, but at that juncture, that did not feel good.”
Spielman a new record holder: Redshirt freshman receiver J.D. Spielman had a whale of a game once again, leading the team with nine catches for 141 yards and a touchdown. He set a new freshman record this season with 49 catches for 734 yards. He also totaled a career-high 291 all-purpose yards Saturday. 150 of those came in kickoff returns. His 1,445 all-purpose yards this season are also a new freshman record. 291 all-purpose yards in a single game is second best in program history for a freshman, trailing only Calvin Jones’ 298 yards against Kansas in 1991.
Reed: Junior safety Antonio Reed, despite the defense’s struggles, led the Blackshirts with a career-high 15 tackles.
— Tommy Rezac (@Tommy_KLIN) November 11, 2017
Additional Post Game Audio
Should Bill Moos wait until the end of the season to fire Mike Riley?
Third choice is there mostly for fun. #Huskers
— Tommy Rezac (@Tommy_KLIN) November 11, 2017
You can contact Tommy at 402-840-5226, or you can follow him on Twitter @Tommy_KLIN.