The Minnesota Golden Gophers walked into Memorial Stadium on Saturday and delivered a knockout blow to Scott Frost and the Nebraska Cornhuskers with a 24-17 road win.
You love to see it.
Minnesota won despite a COVID-19 outbreak that cost them two games and at least two weeks of practice, and forced them to play with a total of 33 players unavailable due to a combination of COVID cases, contact tracing, opt-outs, and injuries. Tip your hat to the players and the coaching staff. Head coach P.J. Fleck and co. had the players ready to play under adverse conditions, and the players certainly did not let the circumstances dictate their play. And in terms of schadenfreude, we can now hold it over Nebraska fans for the foreseeable future that the Huskers lost to a Minnesota team missing 33 players. Priceless.
The Gophers figured out how to close out a game. After struggling to hold late leads against Maryland and Purdue, the stage seemed set for Minnesota to squander their fourth quarter lead against Nebraska after the Huskers cut it to 24-17 with 4:42 left in regulation. But the Gophers set the tone from the first play, dialing up a 10-yard completion to Clay Geary on first down. Mohamed Ibrahim did the rest from there, accounting for 59 rushing yards and three first downs. He even had the presence of mind to stop short of the end zone on his final run — though scoring would not have been a blunder — allowing the Gophers to end the game in victory formation.
Turnovers. Turnovers were the difference in this game. Tyler Nubin’s first quarter interception set up the Gophers’ first touchdown drive of the game, and Boye Mafe’s strip sack near the end of the third quarter allowed Minnesota to extend their lead to 24-14 in the fourth quarter.
Minnesota’s stable of running backs. The Gophers seemed to make a concerted effort to ease Mohamed Ibrahim’s workload at running back, especially with a patchwork offensive line. Ibrahim, Treyson Potts, Cam Wiley, and Bryce Williams all recorded at least two carries and combined for 35 rushing attempts and 204 rushing yards. Wiley had the best game of his career, rushing for 81 yards on seven carries, including a 61-yard dash down the sideline in the second quarter. But Ibrahim was the main event, as per usual, adding two more rushing touchdowns to his season total (15). He is now three scores shy of tying the school record for rushing touchdowns in a single season. And that is in an abbreviated season. Wild.
Tight end touchdown in the red zone. More, please.
Mariano Sori-Marin and the Gopher defense. Was it a perfect game? No. But it was by far the Minnesota defense’s best game of the season against an offense that was firing on all cylinders a week ago against Purdue. Only Northwestern held Nebraska to fewer points (13) this season. The Gophers forced two turnovers, tackled well for the most part (after a two-week layoff), and limited explosive plays, especially on the ground. Sori-Marin, who has made his fair share of mistakes this season, led the Gopher defense with 18 tackles. Though I could have done without him being lined up over Wan’Dale Robinson on a couple occasions.
Boye Mafe. The Gophers’ athletic freak at rush end missed the Purdue game due to COVID but returned against Nebraska and didn’t seem to show any signs of rust, coming up big with a strip sack of Adrian Martinez that Minnesota converted into points. A fun fact: Mafe did most of his damage against fellow Minnesota native Bryce Benhart, Nebraska’s right tackle.
Minnesota punter Mark Crawford. The 26-year-old true freshman Aussie punter, who has been “meh” for much of the season, showed his potential against Nebraska, dropping three punts inside the 20, including one inside the Huskers’ own 5-yard line.
The $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy stays in Minnesota. Blessed be the Chair.
The Gophers’ patchwork offensive line. Minnesota was without starting center John Michael Schmitz and starting left guard Axel Ruschmeyer, forcing redshirt sophomore Nathan Boe and true freshman Aireontae Ersery to make their first career starts at center and right tackle, respectively. Blaise Andries shifted inside to left guard. You could make a case that this group belongs under “Elite” considering the circumstances and the fact that they did not surrender a single sack and paved the way for 200+ rushing yards. But much of the latter was Ibrahim making something out of nothing. The run blocking was just too inconsistent, but that is to be expected.
The post-Rashod Bateman era at wide receiver. Playing conditions were not ideal, but there were still far too many dropped passes. Chris Autman-Bell looked comfortable as Tanner Morgan’s new safety blanket, leading the team in receptions and receiving yards, but the rest of the wide receiver corps left much to be desired. True freshman Daniel Jackson continues to flash his potential, though he seems to be a ways off still from putting it all together.
Two drives end in a turnover on downs. The Gophers had two drives die in Nebraska territory after failing to convert on fourth down. They nearly had a third drive end on 4th & Goal at the one-yard line, but fortunately Ibrahim was able to punch it in for the score.