It's official: Minnesota has Nebraska's number
MINNEAPOLIS — You won’t often hear a Division I football coach use the word “perfect.”
Not even the King of the Catchphrase PJ Fleck, whose lexicon of verbal confection might be as complex as the Elvish language J.R.R. Tolkien invented for his “Lord of the Rings” books.
But that’s exactly how the Minnesota coach described defensive coordinator Joe Rossi Jr.’s game plan in the Golden Gophers’ 30-23 victory over Nebraska.
“Perfect,” Fleck said. “We did exactly what we needed to do.”
The Gophers (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) bottled up quarterback Adrian Martinez and had him uncomfortable from the jump. They spread themselves out horizontally to take away Nebraska’s triple option game. And a secondary that might be one of the country’s most improved didn’t give the skilled Huskers signal caller many open passing lanes aside from the tight end position.
Meanwhile, Tanner Morgan remembered how to drop a ball in a bucket during the bye week. The depth of an apparently-depleted running back room showed itself.
Minnesota is now 4-1 against Nebraska during the past half-decade.
“Sometimes that’s the way it goes and those opportunities aren’t there for you,” Martinez said after completing 18 of 33 passes for 241 yards but rushing for minus-17 (two sacks included) with a long of 4.
The Gophers seem to have a thing for taking those opportunities away.
They punked Nebraska last season by rolling into Lincoln down 33 players due to COVID-19 and walking away with a 24-17 win. The end of previous coaches Mike Riley and Bo Pelini’s tenures can be traced in part to defeats against Minnesota, too. But the most surprising remains a 34-7 shellacking here in 2019 that the Huskers frankly seemed to have little interest in playing.
It looked that way for a half before Nebraska made it 21-16 in the latter stages Saturday. A stuffed attempt on fourth-and-goal from Minnesota’s 1-yard line effectively put an end to that resurgence.
“I feel like it’s all of us together,” said defensive tackle Nyles Pinckney, who had a sack and 3 tackles, “It’s not just the defensive line, but it’s the secondary and linebackers helping us as well, keeping everything tight-knit and making it easy for us.”
This has seemed to be a matchup worthy of those adjectives for Minnesota of late. Saturday was exactly the type of game Fleck wants to play: gain an early lead then milk the clock. While Bowling Green and smaller, faster defensive fronts have exposed the Gophers’ beefy offensive line, Nebraska’s 3-4 is predicated on gumming up the line of scrimmage and letting its linebackers make plays.
That’s hard when you have three or four down linemen engaging five that weigh the collective amount of a small used car dealership’s inventory.
The Gophers are now fourth in total defense (307.8 yards allowed per game) in the B1G after ranking near the bottom of the league for most of last season.
“Complementary football,” Fleck calls it.
That was made possible Saturday by Morgan’s 20-for-24 passing performance that included a school-record 16 straight completions. He did throw a pair of interceptions but has made steady improvement after some low points during non-conference play.
“It was huge,” Morgan said. “When you are able to take advantage of what the defense is giving you on early downs, it really helps to move the chains and gets you in a better opportunity.”
Bryce Williams led the way on the ground in filling for Mohamed Ibrahim and now Trey Potts, who had emerged as one of the B1G’s top new feature backs before a season-ending injury 2 weeks ago at Purdue. Williams had 127 yards — 56 on a game-sealing touchdown jaunt late in the fourth quarter.
“There are a lot of guys on the team that are just like him,” Fleck said. “They are selfless. He could have transferred by now or left by now, but all he has done is be the best teammate on this football team. I have a little button of him that his mom gave me when he first came here. It is him in Pop Warner football. This week I pulled it out and kept in on my desk. I just kept it there sublimity like he was going to have a big game. Looking at his smile when he was eight years old to now, it is really special.”
With Iowa’s loss to Purdue on Saturday, things are now very interesting for a Minnesota team with sudden confidence. A bowl appears within reach, starting with next weekend’s home game against Maryland.
“That was gritty,” Fleck said. “We are down a lot of players and a lot of playmakers, but more and more playmakers keep emerging.”