Well that felt good. The Minnesota Golden Gophers snapped a two-game losing streak and beat Mike Riley for the first time in his three-year tenure at Nebraska with a 54-21 beatdown of the Cornhuskers at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday. Minnesota now sits at 5-5 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten, needing a win over either Northwestern or Wisconsin in the final two games of the season to clinch bowl eligibility. But let’s talk about that fifth win first.
Rodney Smith. He set the tone with a game-opening 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, the second of his college career. Smith never found the end zone after that, but he was the workhorse on offense, churning out 134 rushing yards on 24 carries — and 93 of those yards came after contact. He was also responsible for 10 of the Gophers’ 24 first downs, allowing the Gopher offense to sustain five scoring drives of at least 70 yards.
Kobe McCrary. Smith was the workhorse, but McCrary was the closer, scoring three rushing touchdowns against Nebraska, including a 43-yard burst up the middle in the fourth quarter. He finished the game with 10 carries for 93 yards. One of his most impressive runs came in the second quarter, when McCrary pulled a couple spin moves straight out of a video game.
Demry Croft. His passing statistics won’t dazzle anyone — 9-for-15 with 105 passing yards — but he commanded the offense to near perfection, avoiding any costly mistakes. He looked comfortable in the pocket, with plenty of protection, and made good decisions all game long. On the ground, Croft was sensational. When he wasn’t handing the ball off to Smith or McCrary, he was rushing for 183 yards of his own, breaking a school record for quarterback rushing yards in a game previously set by MarQueis Gray against Miami (Ohio) in 2011. He also had three rushing touchdowns, including a 73-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
The offensive line. Smith, McCrary, and Croft were the big playmakers, but much of their success was made possible by the unsung heroes on the offensive line. The Minnesota Moving Company opened up gaping holes for the Gophers’ running backs and kept Croft clean for most of the game, allowing only one sack and four tackles for loss. It was the most complete performance we’ve seen this season from the offensive line.
The run defense. The Cornhuskers have one of the worst rushing attacks in the country, but I still feel the Gophers’ run defense deserves credit for bouncing back from last week’s horrific performance against Michigan. Nebraska’s offense was held to 69 rushing yards on 33 attempts, for an average of 2.1 yards per carry. 27 of those rushing yards came on the Huskers’ first drive of the game. The tackling was much improved from a week ago and Minnesota never allowed Nebraska to break big plays on the ground.
The Gophers’ tribute for Veterans Day. Setting aside your feelings about the product on the field this season, you can’t deny that head coach P.J. Fleck has certainly delivered the culture of serving and giving that he promised when he was first hired. The Gophers’ helmets, which were each adorned with the name of a different student veteran, were another example of this program’s willingness to go the extra mile for gestures that will resonate off the field.
Defending the pass. It wasn’t a great performance from the Gophers’ secondary. Duke McGhee, in particular, struggled in pass coverage, especially when matched up against Nebraska wide receiver J.D. Spielman, who finished with nine receptions for 141 receiving yards. Husker quarterbacks Tanner Lee — who did not play in the second half due to illness — and Patrick O’Brien combined to go 25-for-36 with 311 passing yards and one touchdown. The Gopher defense did crank up the pressure in the second half, recording six sacks, but Nebraska had a bit too much success attacking a normally solid secondary.
Nothing. It was beautiful.