The final score wasn’t indicative of how one-sided Saturday’s game between the Minnesota Golden Gophers and Nebraska Cornhuskers really was.
The Gophers added two garbage-time touchdowns in the fourth quarter after the game was plenty out of hand to make it a 38-14 final. Minnesota fell to 6-5 on the year in what was yet another lopsided Big Ten loss. Here are five things we learned from the Gophers’ loss in Lincoln.
1. From start to finish, Minnesota was simply outmatched.
The Gophers traveled to Lincoln, Neb., as heavy underdogs against the 8-2 Cornhuskers. Minnesota kicked off to start the game and trailed from the first possession as Nebraska kicked a 39-yard field goal on its opening drive.
The Huskers never looked back after their first score, as they led 24-0 at halftime to seemingly put the game out of reach at the half. Minnesota added two fourth-quarter touchdowns to avoid its first shutout of the year, but the 24-point loss was the Gophers’ fourth conference loss of 18 or more points.
Minnesota has made progress since last year’s three-win season, as is evident by the fact that coach Jerry Kill’s team will be playing in December or January. But the Gophers still haven’t been competitive in games against some of the Big Ten’s top teams. They lost big on the road to Wisconsin and at home against Michigan before Saturday’s rout at the hands of the Huskers. That’s when the real progress will be evident: when the Gophers can compete with the Big Ten’s elite.
2. Third downs were killer for the Gophers.
Minnesota punted 11 times on Saturday, thanks to the Gophers’ inability to convert on third downs. It’s something that has plagued Minnesota all year, as the Gophers had converted on just 36.8 percent of third downs all season. Against Nebraska’s defense, Minnesota was 1-for-13 on third downs, with the lone conversion coming in the fourth quarter after the game was out of reach. One of the Gophers’ three-and-outs was an interception by freshman quarterback Philip Nelson that was returned 48 yards for a touchdown by Nebraska’s Stanley Jean-Baptiste.
The Gophers did not attempt a play on fourth down and picked up just 11 first downs all game. By comparison, Nebraska was 7-for-14 on third down and had 25 total first downs. That stat was indicative of the Huskers’ dominance Saturday.
3. Taylor Martinez is a legitimate threat.
Martinez, Nebraska’s dual-threat quarterback, entered Saturday’s game as the fourth-best passer in the Big Ten and the No. 10 rusher in the conference. Despite an unorthodox throwing delivery, Martinez became Nebraska’s all-time leading passer during Saturday’s game — and he’s only a junior. Martinez surpassed Zac Taylor’s mark of 5,850 yards.
Minnesota’s pass defense has been solid for most of the season, but the Gophers secondary had no answers for Martinez and the Nebraska aerial attack. Martinez threw for 308 yards on 21-of-29 passing in Saturday’s win, the most passing yards surrendered by Minnesota all season. The previous high allowed by the Gophers was 234 yards against Michigan on Nov. 3. Martinez only completed passes to four receivers, including a game-high nine catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns by Kenny Bell.
Martinez averages 77 yards per game on the ground, but didn’t do much with his legs against the Gophers. He gained 22 yards on nine carries. Then again, he threw for over 300 yards so he didn’t need to do much on the ground.
4. Where was Minnesota’s running game?
Redshirt sophomore running back Donnell Kirkwood had a career game last weekend against Illinois, carrying Minnesota’s offense by racking up 152 yards and two touchdowns — including a game-sealing touchdown late in the fourth quarter to give the Gophers their sixth win of the year.
But against a Nebraska defense that allows 179.9 yards per game on the ground, Minnesota had no running attack to speak of. Kirkwood gained just 11 yards on 11 carries; his longest gain of the game went for only three yards. True freshman Rodrick Williams had a team-high 26 rushing yards on seven carries. The Gophers’ longest run of the day was a 14-yard carry in the fourth quarter by backup quarterback Max Shortell. Minnesota gained 87 total rushing yards, the fewest it gained all season.
5. Minnesota now has one game to improve its bowl standings — and it will come against a team needing a win to become bowl eligible.
Stuck at six wins, the Gophers have one regular-season game remaining next Saturday at home. Minnesota hosts a Michigan State team coming off a 23-20 loss at home to Northwestern. The Spartans are 5-6 and need a win to become bowl eligible. Could that come next Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium? The Gophers will need to be ready for a hungry MSU team. One of Minnesota’s best road games of the year last season was a 31-24 loss to then-No. 17 Michigan State. The Spartans have lost two straight games and four of their last five. Minnesota has the chance to prevent MSU from going bowling.