Jerry Kill and his Gopher Football team went to Lincoln and beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers setting up a huge showdown next week in Madison with a trip to the Big Ten Championship Game on the line. Was that a mouthful? But we all know what today's win means in the Big Ten picture and we should all be thrilled.
Before we get to the game it is worth noting that Minnesota has not won in Lincoln since 1960, add this to the list of things Jerry Kill has accomplished with the Gophers that have not happened in my lifetime. And they have not had a 2-game win streak over Nebraska since winning in 1952 and then again in 1954. Clearly those numbers are a big skewed by not playing regularly throughout the decades but the Cornhuskers did have a 16-game win streak in there so this is a nice little win don't you think?
THE GAME ACTION
The game started without much fanfare. Both teams traded touchdowns in the first quarter with the biggest story of the game being the mounting injuries for Nebraska in the quarter. Nebraksa struck first after a 73-yard pass play to Kenny Bell set up Ameer Abdullah for a 2-yard plunge. Minnesota answered on their next drive going 71 yards on 9 plays ending with a Mitch Leidner keeper from the 1.
The second quarter was all Nebraska. They scored on their first possession of the quarter to go up 7-14. The Gophers attempted to answer again. This time they ran 11 plays and drove 74 yards but the drive stalled on the 13. Ryan Santoso lined up to knock in the 30-yard field goal, simple right? Well, the athletic Randy Gregory jumped and blocked the attempt. Nate Gerry picked the ball up and rumbled the length of the field to for a 10-point swing and a 7-21 lead. Both teams made some mistakes on drives that could have resulted in points before the half but a Nebraska fumble ended their attempt and Mitch Leidner missed a couple guys to get us properly into field goal range and the half ended with Nebraska up two touchdowns and the ball to open the third quarter.
This quarter, however belonged to Minnesota. The Gopher defense opened the third quarter forcing a three-and-out that included two sacks. Then the offense took advantage of great field position and scored in just four plays with David Cobb eventually going untouched for a 17-yard touchdown run.
The Cornhuskers took the ball back and moved down the field but stalled when they failed to move the pile on third and two. They were in Drew Brown's range and he put his team back up two scores with a field goal. Now leading 14-24 and that would be their last points.
The Gophers scored again on their second possession of the half, eating up clock as they marched 73 yards on 10 plays. But on this drive the Gophers were without Cobb who was done for the day with a hamstring issue. So the load had to be carried by Roderick Williams, Donnell Kirkwood and Leidner certainly needed to start playing better. The Gopher quarterback was 4/9 and just 54 yards. But on this drive he was 2/2 completing a 21 yard pass to Maxx Williams on third and four, then converting another third down with a 12-yard completion to K.J. Maye. Eventually it was Roderick Williams who went right for a 19-yard touchdown, reducing the Cornhusker lead to just three.
Nebraska answered with a three-and-out. Minnesota was able to get only one first down on their next possession and then Nebraska ended up having to punt after a Theiran Cockran sack essentially ended their drive. Now Minnesota took over with 8:34 left and still trailing 21-24. In my opinion Mitch Leidner had struggled most of the day, particularly passing the ball. And now without David Cobb available he needed to drive the Gophers 80 yards for a tying or go-ahead score.
And he did just that. The key play of the drive was a 38-yard pass to Maye down the left sideline on third and six. A beautiful pass really that was over Maye's shoulder in tight coverage. Leidner tends to pull one of these passes out of his pocket about once a game and this afternoon's timing was impeccable. Five plays later Leidner took it in himself from three yards out and the Gophers had their first lead of the game with 3:25 left on the clock. Plenty of time for Nebraska who certainly made things interesting.
Tommy Armstrong Jr. opened the Nebraska drive with back-to-back completions of 16 and 13 yards to quickly get his team into Gopher territory. Abdullah got them five more and then a very questionable roughing the passer penalty moved them 15 yards further. Two plays later it was third down and nine for the Cornhuskers and a bizarre play essentially ended their comeback bid. Armstrong Jr dropped back to pass, was pressured and appeared to complete a 28-yard pass to De'Mornay Pierson-El. But Briean Boddy-Calhoun ripped the ball away from Pierson-El at the 2-yard line. Technically the completion would not have counted as Pierson-El had gone out of bounds and illegally touched the ball, but the penalty was declined and the Gophers had the ball at the four. They did need one more first down before they could use the victory formation and celebrate a huge road-win.
On second and seven, Donnell Kirkwood got 10 and the game was over. Minnesota would leave Lincoln with a 28-24 win and a date with the Badgers next week to determine who would get to play in the Big Ten Title game.
Minnesota racked up 281 yards rushing on the game led by Leidner who "Moosed" his way to 111 yards on the ground and two touchdowns. Defensively the linebackers played much better after struggling last week. De'Vondre Campbell had 11 tackles and a TFL while Damien Wilson recorded 2 sacks and 7 tackles.
Over the last decade or more I have routinely heard Gopher fans and Twin Cities media say that this program needs to get to a place where they are competitive and every few years in the hunt for a Big Ten Championship, playing meaningful games in November. In year four, Jerry Kill has achieved this. The Gophers will travel to Madison to face the Badgers. Winner gets to play in the Big Ten Championship game. Regardless if you think Minnesota actually has a shot or if they are "good enough" to beat Wisconsin, the fact remains that they are playing a game that matters to both teams on the 12th game of their schedule.
The Axe is on the line and a date with Ohio State and a Big Ten Title is also on the line. A bigger game between these two rivals may not have been played. It should be fun. No extra motivation should be needed this week.
Great win today by the Gophers. I'll be enjoying it with a very nice glass of bourbon (duh). Enjoy it for the weekend and Monday we'll start looking ahead to the showdown in Madison.