Nebraska’s embarrassing loss last week likely cost it a shot at a Big Ten title and has Bo Pelini under fire.
The 21st-ranked Cornhuskers’ battered defense has little time to recover before matching up with another potent running attack Saturday when it hosts Minnesota, which is No. 25 in the College Football Playoff rankings.
Nebraska (8-2, 4-2) controlled its own destiny for a trip to the conference’s championship game prior to Saturday’s 59-24 loss to then-No. 22 Wisconsin. The Cornhuskers led 17-3 early in the second quarter but gave up the next 56 points and surrendered an FBS-record 408 rushing yards to Melvin Gordon.
Pelini, who lost four games in each of his first seven seasons at the helm and has never won a conference title, dismissed larger criticism of the program.
"Since I’ve been head football coach, we’ve been very consistent," said Pelini, who is signed through 2017. "I’m not looking here to defend our program or where we are right now."
The Cornhuskers, who are ranked 23rd in the latest Playoff rankings, are in a three-way tie with Minnesota (7-3, 4-2) and Iowa for second in the West Division behind Wisconsin and need a lot of help to reach their second Big Ten title game. They need to beat Minnesota and win their finale at Iowa and have Wisconsin lose to Iowa and Minnesota.
Saturday’s setback marked Nebraska’s seventh loss by 17 or more points when ranked since 2011, the most by a ranked team in that span.
"I don’t want to make an excuse – because I’m not making an excuse; what happened happened – but sometimes our guys put so much pressure on themselves to win that they’re not playing to win, they’re playing not to lose," Pelini said. "That’s a bad recipe."
The Cornhuskers turned in one of their worst defensive performances in history with Gordon’s total surpassing the school’s previous record for most rushing yards allowed – 290 by Texas’ Jamaal Charles in 2007. Gordon broke off six runs of 39-plus yards.
Nebraska, which came in allowing 123.8 rushing yards per game before giving up 581, had previously conceded three runs of 35 yards or more all season.
"The thing that was very disappointing was when it got to the second level, plays that in my opinion should have been an 8- or 20-yard gain ended up being 40 or 50," Pelini said.
The Cornhuskers must try to slow down another productive running back in Minnesota’s David Cobb, who ranks seventh nationally with 135.0 yards per game and ran 31 times for 138 yards in the Gophers’ 34-23 win last season as they snapped a 16-game series losing streak.
Cobb tallied 145 yards on 27 carries with a career-high three touchdowns Saturday but Minnesota took a 31-24 loss to then-No. 8 Ohio State. The Gophers were burned on the ground too, giving up 189 yards to quarterback J.T. Barrett – including an 86-yard touchdown scamper.
They could get a rematch with Ohio State in the Big Ten title game if they win out. Minnesota, which closes its regular-season schedule next week at Wisconsin, has dropped seven straight trips to Lincoln, however, and hasn’t won there since a 26-14 victory in 1960.
"Who knows what’s going to happen? Everybody’s got to play each other," coach Jerry Kill said. "I wish I had a crystal ball, but I know we control our own destiny."
Both offenses are looking to bounce back after poor showings as well. Minnesota’s Mitch Leidner was 7 of 19 for 85 yards with two interceptions, while Tommy Armstrong Jr. was 6 of 18 for 62 yards and a pick for Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers rank third in the Big Ten with a 98.9 opponents’ passer rating while Minnesota is seventh at 111.1.
Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah was sixth nationally with 138.9 rushing yards per game before being limited to 69 yards on 18 carries. The Cornhuskers committed five turnovers and their 180 yards were their fewest since finishing with 106 in the 2009 Big 12 title game against Texas.