Minneapolis – Minnesota returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, an early omen for how this day would go for Nebraska. Gopher quarterback Demry Croft ran 10 times for 183 yards and three touchdowns, the Gophers rushed for 409 yards, and Minnesota defeated Nebraska 54-21 on Saturday before 39,933 fans at TCF Bank Stadium. Nebraska (4-6, 3-4 Big Ten Conference) must win its final two games, at Penn State and home against Iowa, to qualify for a bowl. Minnesota (5-5, 2-4) had lost five of six games entering Saturday but won its second Big Ten Conference game under first-year coach P.J. Fleck.
Croft entered the game with 159 rushing yards on 49 carries for the season. He had 111 rushing yards by halftime Saturday, including a 73-yard touchdown run when he went untouched after perfectly executing a zone-read play.
The Gophers successfully ran that same play in the first half, when Minnesota scored on all four of its first-half drives, not counting Rodney Smith’s kickoff return to begin the game.
As disappointing the outcome, the Huskers had some bright spots, mostly on offense. Redshirt freshman receiver JD Spielman caught nine passes for 141 yards and etched his name in the Nebraska record books. Playing in his hometown of Minneapolis, Spielman increased his season receiving totals to 49 receptions and 734 yards to set Nebraska freshman records in both categories. The previous records were 45 receptions for 641 yards by Nate Swift in 2005.
Spielman recorded his second 100-yard receiving game of the season, joining Swift as the only freshmen in Nebraska history to post multiple 100-yard receiving games. Spielman’s 49 receptions this season leaves him just one catch shy of the single-season top 10.
Junior quarterback Tanner Lee went 13-of-18 passing for 174 yards for Nebraska but fell ill at halftime with what Nebraska coach Mike Riley said was an impact migraine. Lee didn’t play in the second half. Redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien, in the most extensive playing time of his career, replaced Lee and went 12-of-18 for 137 yards.“I thought he made some nice plays,” Riley said of O’Brien.
Nebraska played turnover-free football and committed a mere four penalties but ran for just 69 yards and couldn’t come up with enough stops in the first half to keep the Gophers in sight.
“Here’s what happened,” Riley said in his postgame news conference. “They moved the football and we couldn’t get them off the field. We never got our feet on the ground anytime that I can remember defensively.”
After the Gophers scored 16 seconds into the game, Lee led a 12-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to tie the game 7-7.
Junior running back Mikale Wilbon ran five times for 25 yards on the series and capped it with a 1-yard run. That marked Nebraska’s first rushing touchdown since Sept. 29 at Illinois, when Devine Ozigbo ran 15 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter.
Lee also led a 10-play, 90-yard touchdown drive in the second quarter when he found a rhythm with Spielman. Lee hit Spielman for gains of 10, 18, 27 and 11 yards before finding tight end Tyler Hoppes on a 14-yard touchdown pass to pull the Huskers within 27-14.
Minnesota responded with an 11-play, 71-yard drive that culminated with Emmit Carpenter’s 36-yard field goal with four seconds to play before halftime, and the Gophers took a 30-14 lead into the locker room.
The Huskers had another drive go deep into Minnesota territory in the first half. It came when senior receiver DeMornay Pierson-El caught a 44-yard pass on a crossing route to advance the Huskers to the Minnesota 27-yard line.
Nebraska worked the ball to the 7-yard line early in the second quarter but couldn’t convert on fourth-and-short, giving the ball back to the Gophers. That’s when Croft scored on his 73-yard run.
Nebraska took the opening second-half kickoff, and with O’Brien playing for the first time, the Huskers went three-and-out.
The Husker defense then responded by forcing its first punt of the game, but Nebraska went three-and-out on offense, and Minnesota scored touchdowns on its next two drives to take charge.
Nebraska’s final score came when Ozigbo scored a 1-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter to cap a 10-play, 70-yard drive in which O’Brien completed four passes, including a 25-yard strike to Spielman.