Despite trailing 21-7 at halftime, 25th-ranked Minnesota didn’t waiver from what’s made them one of the better teams in the Big Ten–a strong running game and timely completions in the passing game. That formula worked once again as Minnesota knocked off Nebraska for the first time in Lincoln since 1960.
Mitch Leidner’s 3-yard touchdown run with 3:25 to play in the fourth quarter put the Gophers ahead for good as they left Memorial Stadium victorious to the tune of a 28-24 triumph. Facing a 14-point halftime deficit, Minnesota outscored Nebraska 21-3 in the second half and kept their Big Ten West division title hopes in tact in the process, setting up a titanic match up against Wisconsin next week in Madison.
“Today our kids were mentally tough and just hung in there and played hard,” Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. “Nebraska is a great team, coming into here, it is difficult. We came a long way, but that is because of the players and their effort in what they have done all offseason.”
Meanwhile, Nebraska faltered in the final 30 minutes and lost on Senior Day for the second straight season. The only points the 23rd-ranked Huskers could muster in the second half were from a 30-yard field goal by Drew Brown at the 7:19 mark of the third quarter that extended their lead to 24-14. However, Minnesota answered with a heavy dose of Leidner on and the ground and in the air.
“Early on in the game we were making some drives but just not able to finish them. The second half was big for us,” Leidner said.
The sophomore led the Gophers with 22 carries for 110 yards and two touchdowns, while David Cobb carried 15 times for 80 yards and a touchdown. Cobb left the game in the third quarter with an undisclosed injury, but his replacement Rodrick Williams Jr. didn’t miss a beat, carrying three times for 22 yards, which included a 19-yard touchdown run to close the Nebraska lead to 24-21 with 1:47 left in the third quarter.
Nebraska had a chance as the fourth quarter clock ticked away before the 340th consecutive sellout at Memorial Stadium. De’Mornay Pierson-El, who had earlier caught an 18-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Armstrong, caught a pass from Armstrong inside the Minnesota 10, but Briean Boddy-Calhoun took the ball from Pierson-El and Minnesota took over on their own 4 yard line with just over a minute to play. A first down run by Donnell Kirkwood two plays later sealed the deal and sent the Minnesota players and fans in attendance into a boisterous mood as their team defeated Nebraska for a second straight year.
” We beat ourselves in a lot of instances. We lost some opportunities, obviously on offense,” Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini said. “We put the ball on the ground. Didn’t take advantage of some opportunities. And all those things add up to losing against a good football team.”
The Huskers got out to a decent start, much like they had a week prior at Wisconsin. Nebraska forced a Minnesota punt on the Gophers’ first possession and took over on their own 16. Keyed by a 73-yard strike from Tommy Armstrong to Kenny Bell, the Huskers would eventually score on a 2-yard touchdown run by Ameer Abdullah. The opening drive for the Huskers was not without peril however, as both Bell and center Mark Pelini left the game with injuries and have not returned. Bell and Pelini were two of the 13 seniors honored on Senior Day before the game started.
Minnesota answered Abdullah’s touchdown with a nine play, 71 yard drive that ended with Mitch Leidner’s 1-yard touchdown run to tie the game at 7-7. Into the second quarter, Nebraska responded with an eight play, 49-yard scoring drive that ended with an 18-yard touchdown pass from Armstrong to De’Mornay Pierson-El. Minnesota would set themselves up for a 30-yard field goal attempt to draw within 14-10, but Gregory got a hand on Santoso’s kick and Gerry scooped up the ball and sauntered 85 yards for a touchdown.
However, the Gophers responded in a big way after halftime and flexed their muscle on both sides of the ball. After the Huskers went three-and-out to start the third quarter, Minnesota took over after a short punt at the Nebraska 35-yard line. Four plays later, Cobb went up the middle for a 17-yard touchdown run to half the deficit to 21-14. Nebraska would answer with Brown’s 30-yard field goal, but Minnesota countered once again behind their bruising running game and timely passing from Leidner.
Leidner’s biggest pass of the day came on a 3rd-and-6 from the Gophers’ 37 late in the fourth quarter. Leidner found KJ Maye for a spectacular 38-yard pitch and catch down to the Nebraska 25 despite good coverage from Nebraska cornerback Daniel Davie. Leidner would connect with tight end Maxx Williams for a 10-yard strike down to the Huskers’ 13, and the quarterback finished off the drive three plays later with the game-winning 2-yard touchdown run.
The loss means Nebraska is out of contention for the Big Ten Western division title completely. It needed both a win over the Gophers and a loss by Wisconsin at Iowa to remain alive for the regular season’s final week. It’s also Nebraska only loss at home in the 2014 season, where they finished with a 4-1 mark. Armstrong finished 12-of-19 on the day for 223 yards and a touchdown, in addition to 12 carries for 45 yards. Abdullah nearly cracked the 100 yard mark in his final game at Memorial Stadium, coming up just short with 20 carries for 98 yards and a touchdown.
“”I didn’t think we tackled very well. When we did tackle, we gave up a couple extra yards, leaky yards, and that’s one thing that kind of hurt us,” Gerry said. “Sometimes we couldn’t get off blocks to make tackles and that’s just something you have to get better at by the week.”
Overall, it was Minnesota’s ball control offense that kept pounding away at the Blackshirts that won the game. The Gophers controlled the ball to the tune of a 35:03 to 24:57 advantage in time of possession. The Gophers churned up 281 yards rushing to Nebraska’s 174, and converted on 5-of-12 third down conversions and a big fourth down conversion, which was Williams’ 19-yard touchdown run in the third quarter. Leidner wasn’t at his best throwing the ball, but he did just enough with an 8-for-17 day and 135 yards to keep Minnesota’s offense moving at key points.
Senior linebacker Zaire Anderson led the Nebraska defense with 12 tackles, while Nate Gerry added 11 and David Santos pitched in nine tackles. Nebraska has lost two straight and dropped to 8-3 with the loss, 4-3 in the Big Ten. Minnesota upped their mark to 8-3 overall and 5-2 in conference play, and need a win at 16th-ranked Wisconsin next week to advance to their first ever Big Ten championship game appearance.
“I feel bad for the seniors. But like I told the team, we lost because we didn’t deserve to win. We didn’t play well enough. We had too many busts,” according to Pelini.
“We haven’t regressed. I said it about three weeks ago. I said some of the things that are plaguing us haven’t hurt us up to this point. These last two weeks it hurt us. I mean it’s as simple as that. We’re not executing at a high enough of a level. Sometimes you can get away with it, sometimes you can’t.”
Nebraska closes the season next Friday at Iowa in the 4th annual Heroes Game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. The Hawkeyes defeated the Huskers 38-17 last season to claim their first win in the Heroes Game since it was instituted in 2011. Iowa is also out of contention for the Big Ten West division title after the Hawkeyes fell to Wisconsin 26-24 on Saturday in Iowa City.