Minnesota defensive back Cedric Thompson, rear, strips the ball for a turnover from Nebraska wide receiver De'Mornay Pierson-El (15) on Saturday afternoon.
LINCOLN, Neb. — Jerry Kill’s building project at Minnesota has taken another huge step.
Down by double digits in the third quarter, and with star running back David Cobb on the sideline injured, the Gophers stunned No. 21 Nebraska 28-24 on Saturday to keep alive their hopes in the Big Ten West.
"I’m not going to tell you that winning in Lincoln, Nebraska, doesn’t rank up there," Kill said. "That’s not an easy thing to do."
The Gophers trailed by 14 points at half and by 10 in the middle of the third quarter before Mitch Leidner led two long scoring drives that gave them the lead. Leidner’s 2-yard run put the Gophers ahead, and Briean Boddy-Calhoun made the defensive play of the game when he ripped the ball out of De’Mornay Pierson-El’s hands at the Minnesota 2-yard line with 1:19 left.
The Gophers ran out the clock to end a 20-game road losing streak against Top 25 opponents that dated to 2000.
"It just happened so fast," Boddy-Calhoun said. "I’m sticking a guy, and the next thing I know it’s in his hands, then it’s right there in front of me. The first thing I thought of was, `Get the ball.’"
Minnesota (8-3, 5-2), assured of its best Big Ten record since 2003, can win the West and go to the conference championship game on Dec. 6 with a victory at Wisconsin next week. The Cornhuskers (8-3, 4-3), humiliated at Wisconsin a week ago, lost back-to-back conference games for the first time since 2009 and were eliminated from the West race.
The comeback was Minnesota’s biggest in a win since it rallied from 14 down to beat Northwestern in 2003. The Gophers beat the Huskers for the second straight year and won for the first time in eight visits to Lincoln since 1960.
"We lost because we didn’t deserve to win," Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said. "We didn’t play well enough, had too many busts, our execution was subpar. Our tackling was horrendous. Too much leaky yardage. All those things add up to losing against a good football team."
Leidner ran for a season-high 111 yards and two touchdowns, with many of his 22 carries coming on zone-read option keepers. Cobb had 15 runs for 80 yards before leaving the game.
Nebraska’s Ameer Abdullah had 98 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, and Armstrong was 12 of 19 for 233 yards.
The Gophers were down 21-7 at half after Randy Gregory blocked Ryan Santoso’s 30-yard field-goal attempt and Nate Gerry scooped up the ball and ran it 85 yards down the Nebraska sideline to the end zone.
"The guys weren’t concerned about it," Leidner said. "The way we were moving the ball, we just weren’t finishing drives. We just had a feeling we were going to be able to go out there and put the drives together and finish them."
Minnesota pulled to 21-14 early in the third quarter after two sacks and a short punt set them up at the Nebraska 35, with Cobb scoring from the 17 but injuring his hamstring in the process.
Drew Brown’s 30-yard field goal made it a 10-point Nebraska lead in the middle of the third quarter.
With Donnell Kirkwood and Rodrick Williams filling in for Cobb, the Gophers went 73 yards in 10 plays to pull to 24-21.
Leidner completed third-down passes to Maxx Williams and KJ Maye before Rodrick Williams bounced outside for a touchdown on a fourth-and-1 from the 19.
"On the road, in Lincoln, Nebraska, you roll the dice a little bit," Kill said. "We had to have two scores. I felt like we needed momentum, and I felt like we had a good call. It was big play in the game. If it hadn’t worked, I have everyone in America saying how stupid I was."
On the winning 10-play, 80-yard drive Leidner hit Maye for 38 yards before he pushed his way across the goal line from the 3.
"They’re a mentally tough group," Kill said. "We lose one of the best backs in the nation. Our kids up front just bowed up. We made plays at the end."
The Huskers had hoped to bounce back on senior day from their 59-24 loss at Wisconsin in which Melvin Gordon ran for then-FBS record 408 yards. Nebraska gave up 281 yards rushing to the Gophers after allowing 581 last week.
The Huskers lost center Mark Pelini and all-time leading receiver Kenny Bell to injuries two plays apart on their first possession. Pelini has an injury to his left leg and Bell has a head injury.