Minnesota’s drubbing of Nebraska on Saturday afternoon left everyone leaving TCF Bank Stadium with two questions:
Where has this Gophers offense been?
Has Nebraska’s defense ever seen a read option play?
The Gophers snapped a two-game losing streak, routing the Cornhuskers 54-21 behind 409 rushing yards, six touchdowns and six explosive plays from scrimmage that went for 20+ yards.
The only pushback of the afternoon for the Cornhuskers was star redshirt freshman JD Spielman, son of Vikings general manager Rick Spielman and a former standout at Eden Prairie High School. Spielman caught nine passes for 141 yards and accounted for 37 percent of Nebraska’s total offense in his return to the Twin Cities.
It was P.J. Fleck’s most impressive win in Minnesota by far and probably means the end of Nebraska head coach Mike Riley’s reign in Lincoln.
Here’s a full recap of Saturday’s game (Story | Photos):
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Demry Croft took over the starting quarterback role after lighting up the Michigan State defense in the second half on Oct. 14, but he’d looked uninspiring since.
That is, until Saturday afternoon.
Croft was illusive in the running game and decisive in his throws, rushing for 197 yards and three touchdowns while adding 105 yards through the air on 9-of-15 passing.
He fooled Nebraska’s defense on the read option on all three of his touchdowns and had two runs over 64 yards, breaking Minnesota’s single-game program record for rushing yards as a quarterback. The last Gophers QB to notch the 100-yard mark was Mitch Leidner in a 28-24 win over Nebraska in 2014.
USA TODAY SportsJesse Johnson
DON’T FORGET ABOUT ME
Kobe McCrary can be a forgotten asset at times in Minnesota’s three-headed rushing attack of Smith, McCrary and Shannon Brooks. But with Brooks out, McCrary rose to the occasion like he’s done his whole career in Minnesota. The senior rushed just 10 times, but turned those opportunities into 94 yards and three touchdowns, including the game-sealing 43-yard score with 3:21 to play.
In his Gophers career spanning two seasons, McCrary has amassed 11 touchdowns on 111 attempts and boasts a 5.8 yards-per-carry mark.
It didn’t take long for Minnesota to show it wasn’t messing around. Rodney Smith took back the opening kick 100 yards for a touchdown, the second of his career, which matches the school record. His first score on a kickoff was a 94-yard return during a 34-32 win over Rutgers last season.
The last Gophers player to take back a game-opening kick for six points was Tyrone Carter, who went 86 yards to the house against Arkansas St. in 1998.
19 – The Gophers were averaging under 19 points per game in their first six Big Ten matchups. Minnesota elapsed that number with 11:42 remaining in the second quarter on Croft’s second touchdown scamper. The 54 points were the best display of Minnesota’s offense since its 58-28 win over Indiana State last season, and the last time the Gophers scored 50+ points on a Big Ten opponent was a 51-14 thrashing of Iowa on Nov. 8, 2014.
Third downs were not an issue on Saturday for Croft’s offense, either. The Gophers were a combined 8 of 29 on third downs (27.6 percent) in their last two games -- losses on the road to Iowa and Michigan. But on Saturday, Minnesota converted 56 percent (5 of 9) of its third-down attempts, finding a way to extend drives and punch them in for six points.
THEY SAID IT
“They believe in the process and this is part of the process. Being able to respond after getting blown out and when you didn’t play well, you come out and play one of the most complete games you’ve played, that’s response. I think everyone’s learned a very valuable life lesson, and a program lesson.” – head coach P.J. Fleck
“It was great to seeing him running down that field. That was a great feeling to start off on the right note. We talk about it all week, being elite and all three phases of the game, and we started it off right with special teams.” – Croft on Smith’s kickoff return for a touchdown
“Here’s what happened on the defensive end, they moved the football and we couldn’t get them off the field. With regards on intensity, I know that the score indicates we didn’t, and I know that we probably got setback on our heels a little bit, a lot, with the opening kickoff. But like I said then, we responded, but never got our feet on the ground at any time, that I can remember defensively.” – Nebraska head coach Mike Riley on his team’s effort
Minnesota heads to Evanston, Ill., for its final road game of the season against Northwestern. To clinch bowl eligibility, the Gophers will likely have to win one of their final two games. Next week might their best chance, as a matchup with undefeated Wisconsin will conclude the season Nov.25.