The $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy will spend another year in the Twin Cities after the Minnesota Golden Gophers (4-2) survived a near shutout in the second half to beat the Nebraska Cornhuskers (3-5), 30-23, for the third straight year. As needlessly stressful as the second half was, there was a lot to like from the Gophers in this game, especially on defense.
Chris Autman-Bell. Finally healthy, Autman-Bell looked the part of the wide receiver Minnesota fans expected him to be coming into this season, hauling in a career-high 11 receptions for 103 receiving yards and a touchdown. His touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone in the second quarter was ridiculous and was made even more impressive by the fact that the cornerback in coverage was flagged for defensive pass interference.
Cole Kramer’s first career touchdown pass. On 4th & 1 from the Nebraska 5-yard line on the Gophers’ first offensive possession of the game, Cole Kramer came in to run the Wildcat and connected with Brevyn Spann-Ford for a five-yard touchdown to get Minnesota on the board.
Jack Gibbens. The Abilene Christian transfer linebacker has been an elite addition to the defense. He has led the Gophers in tackles in multiple games this season and did it again on Saturday, recording a team-high eight tackles against the Huskers. Gibbens’ impact was felt from the start of the game, especially on the Huskers’ second offensive possession. After Nebraska gained 20+ yards on back-to-back plays, Gibbens stood up running back Rahmir Johnson on a four-yard gain and then dropped Johnson for no gain on the very next play, setting up a third down sack by Nyles Pinckney to force the Huskers to settle for a field goal.
Esezi Otomewo’s pressure on Adrian Martinez in the end zone. With the offense struggling to score in the second half, Minnesota put pressure on their defense to make plays and defensive end Esezi Otomewo delivered. On first down at the Nebraska 11-yard line, Adrian Martinez dropped back and was driven into the end zone by Otomewo, who was able to get hits mitts on Martinez after mauling right tackle Bryce Benhart. Martinez threw the ball away but was still in the tackle box and there was no receiver in the vicinity of his throw. He was flagged for intentional downing and the play was ruled a safety because it occurred in the end zone.
The Gophers’ goal line stand. Trailing 21-16 and with starting field position at the Gophers’ 47-yard line after Mark Crawford capped a Minnesota three-and-out with a bad 32-yard punt, the Huskers only needed four plays to reach 1st & Goal at the six-yard line. Nebraska seemed poised to take their first lead of the game with a go-ahead touchdown. But the Gopher defense kept them out of the end zone on four straight plays, including third and fourth down runs at the goal line.
Bryce Williams’ 56-yard touchdown. Williams, who has largely been MIA since rushing for 502 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman in 2018, got the surprise start at running back and was the back that P.J. Fleck turned to late in the game when the Gophers were trying to run out the clock. Williams rewarded Fleck’s faith, breaking loose for a 56-yard touchdown with two minutes left to give Minnesota a two-score lead. His nine-yard gain on 2nd & 7 on the final possession also iced the game for the Gophers. He finished with 17 carries for 127 rushing yards.
Nugget: #Gophers coach PJ Fleck told KFAN's @jgkfan post-game Bryce Williams' mother gave him button of Bryce playing Pop Warner football. Fleck put it on his desk this week, thinking the overlooked running back might have a big day. He did: 17 carries, 127 yards, 56-yard TD run.— Andy Greder (@andygreder) October 16, 2021
The beginning of the end for Scott Frost? Minnesota has now won three straight games against Nebraska, dropping Scott Frost’s record against P.J. Fleck to 1-3.
Tanner Morgan. There is a case to be made that Tanner Morgan belongs under Elite, and that’s certainly where I had him penciled in at halftime when he was 14-of-15 for 171 passing yards and two touchdowns. But then the second half started and he threw interceptions on back-to-back drives. The first was an underthrown pass down the sideline to Mike Brown-Stephens, and the underthrow allowed cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt to close the gap and snag the ball away. The next drive, Morgan was completely oblivious to safety Deontai Williams sitting under Chris Autman-Bell’s route and ended up throwing it right to him, which Nebraska converted into points on the ensuing drive. Morgan was 6-of-9 for 38 passing yards in the second half.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. Sanford gets the same treatment as his quarterback. Credit where credit is due: He called a near perfect game in the first half — with the exception of an ill-advised reverse flea-flicker that made the mistake of coinciding with a cornerback blitz — and got Morgan into a rhythm, leaning more on the passing game than he has all season. But then the offense looked to be out of ammo coming out of the locker room at halftime.
Pass coverage against tight end Austin Allen. Many of the Huskers’ chunk plays came courtesy of 6’9” tight end Austin Allen, who might as well have been invisible to the Gophers’ secondary at times. He racked up 121 receiving yards on only five receptions, including a touchdown late in the fourth quarter. Minnesota completely neutralized Samori Toure, Nebraska’s leading receiver, and limited him to one yard on one reception, but seemed to lose track of Allen all too often.