MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers are going bowling, and they do so after an upset win over No. 24 Nebraska by a 34-23 victory at TCF Bank Stadium. The win improves Minnesota’s record to 6-2 on the year and 2-2 in the Big Ten. More importantly, the Gophers are bowl eligible once again, and they achieved that mark with four games left in the season. Saturday’s win is arguably the signature victory that head coach Jerry Kill and his staff have been searching for since taking over the program three years ago. After the game, the Gophers insisted that they’ve set their goals higher than just reaching a bowl game, which is the right attitude to have for a team in rebuilding mode that has started to taste success. Here are the grades from Saturday’s big victory.
Running offense: A
David Cobb had just one carry last season as a sophomore. He began this year as Minnesota’s third-string running back. Yet there he was on Saturday, gaining over 100 yards for the second straight weekend as he rushed for 138 yards on 31 carries to help the Gophers grind down the Huskers. Cobb now leads the team with 615 rushing yards and has a chance to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark with four games remaining. He was able to gain tough yards against Nebraska in his second consecutive start. Quarterback Philip Nelson added 55 yards on eight carries, including a team-high 23-yarder. Minnesota also added the wrinkle of the wide receiver end-around, and it worked successfully several times. Donovahn Jones rushed four times for 42 yards while Derrick Engel also had an 11-yard run on an end-around.
Passing offense: C-plus
The passing game remains a work in progress for Minnesota, even eight games into the season. The Gophers started redshirt freshman Mitch Leidner at quarterback but eventually replaced him with Philip Nelson, something that was planned heading into the game as Minnesota experiments with a two-quarterback system. Leider attempted just two passes and completed one for seven yards. Nelson, meanwhile, was 7-for-15 with a 33-yard touchdown pass to Derrick Engel. Nelson should have had at least a few more completions if not for multiple drops by his receivers. While accuracy has been an issue for Nelson at times this year, his passes were mostly on target Saturday. Tight end Drew Goodger, who entered the game with just three catches all season, matched that total Saturday to lead the Gophers with three catches for 68 yards.
Running defense: B-minus
The Gophers faced the best running back they’ve seen all year Saturday in Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah, who somewhat quietly ran for 165 yards on 19 carries — an impressive average of 8.7 yards per carry. His longest run only went for 22 yards, but he had success getting to the outside for big chunks of yards. He and Martinez successfully ran the option several times for sizeable gains, something that took the Gophers’ defense a while to adjust to. Quarterback Taylor Martinez didn’t do a whole lot with his legs but did have a nice 35-yard run, with a key block by Abdullah to spring him free. That set up Nebraska’s touchdown in the third quarter. For Abdullah, the 165 yards were his second-most of the year, but he never broke off a long, game-changing run.
Passing defense: A-minus
Minnesota prepared all week for Huskers starter Taylor Martinez, even though he missed Nebraska’s last three games with a toe injury. Sure enough, Martinez got the start and did not look anything like the quarterback who threw for over 300 yards last year against Minnesota. The Gophers’ secondary limited him to 16-of-30 passing for 139 yards and a touchdown. While some of that was due to good coverage by Minnesota, part of it was Martinez’s inaccuracy. Still, give the Gophers’ defensive line credit as they sacked Martinez four times and had good pressure for most of the game, making the secondary’s job easier. Nebraska did connect for a few big plays through the air — a 42-yarder to Kenny Bell and a 32-yarder to Quincy Enunwa — but Martinez was otherwise ineffective.
Special teams: B
Kicker Chris Hawthorne connected on both tries Saturday, including one from 45 yards out and another from 26 that gave the Gophers a 17-10 lead. Minnesota neutralized Nebraska’s kick return game, which was never much of a factor. The Huskers’ longest kickoff return was just 31 yards by Kenny Bell. On the same token, the Gophers’ returners didn’t do anything special. In fact, the only kickoff return was by tight end Maxx Williams on a squib kick at the end of the first half. Derrick Engel returned two punts for a total of nine yards. Gophers punter Peter Mortell had put up impressive numbers entering Saturday’s game but averaged just 35.0 yards on his five punts, although two of those were downed inside the 20-yard line. All in all, special teams didn’t end up being much of a factor for either team. But given Nebraska’s speedy skill players, the Gophers did a nice job of containing the Huskers’ return game.
This was an historic win for the Gophers, as they beat the Huskers for the first time since 1960. It snapped a string of 16 straight losses for Minnesota in the series, most of which were lopsided decisions. Few people gave the Gophers a chance in Saturday’s game, but Minnesota’s players believed in themselves. The fans realized the magnitude of the win as they stormed the field to celebrate Minnesota’s win over the 24th-ranked Huskers. Now the Gophers are bowl eligible for the second straight year and have four more Big Ten games remaining. There’s a noticeable confidence starting to grow in Minnesota’s program after two straight Big Ten victories — in games they weren’t expected to win, at that. Now the Gophers have a chance to go on the road next weekend and make it three straight wins by beating Indiana.