MINNEAPOLIS — Nebraska linebackers coach Ross Els was one of the first coaches out of the Husker locker room Saturday afternoon. Given the work he may have ahead with his unit, he may be one of the last leaving the practice field next week.
Though starters David Santos, Jared Afalava and Zaire Anderson combined to make 28 tackles, they struggled to make stops at the line of scrimmage in a 34-23 loss to the Gophers.
“That's a very physical offense that we played,” Els said. “The response isn't what we hoped.”
Els said the Huskers had responded better in previous games, but some of Minnesota's motions and shifts had the unit off-guard in the first half. Though NU adjusted at halftime, Els said, the Gophers again found their groove in the fourth quarter.
NU linebackers overran a few plays and missed tackles, as well.
“Sometimes we were too far outside, sometimes we were too far inside,” Els said. “We fit off our runs a lot of different ways. It's more of an experience thing for these guys. If they see something new, we need to be able to get them over to the sideline and say 'OK, here's how we need to adjust to it.' We adjusted for the most part pretty well until the end.”
NU has to get better daily, Els said.
“Every single day has to be an incredibly intense, focused, great-effort type day,” Els said. “It'll pick up. I know the guys will respond well. Everybody's embarrassed in that locker room.”
Failing on first down
Junior cornerback Josh Mitchell said the goal for Nebraska's defense was always to limit Minnesota on first down. And that didn't happen Saturday.
The Gophers averaged 7.7 yards per first-down play (the average was at 8.4 until the final drive). Their success on first down kept them from becoming one-dimensional, which would have been costly for a Minnesota team that relies heavily on its ground game.
“We came into this game saying that we had to keep them in second-and-long, and we didn't do that,” Mitchell said. “We just weren't executing what we were supposed to do.”
It's been an area of concern for Nebraska's defense all year.
The Huskers gave up an average of 9.3 yards on first-down plays against Wyoming, 9.2 to UCLA and 8.8 to South Dakota State.
Sticking with starters in Long's absence
Nebraska spent the bye week preparing its reserves at guard because of the season-ending injury to Spencer Long, but the Huskers didn't use any of them Saturday.
Junior Mike Moudy made his first career start at right guard, Long's old position, and played the entire game.
But the offense ran just 60 plays, a season low. The Huskers were averaging 78.3 plays per game coming into Saturday. That allowed Moudy to stay fresh, according to offensive line coach John Garrison.
“I didn't feel like the game warranted anyone needing a break because there weren't a whole lot of reps out there,” Garrison said.
Sophomores Givens Price and Ryne Reeves are the new backups at guard. Junior college transfer Chongo Kondolo did not travel to Minnesota, still on track to redshirt.
In tribute to Long, senior Andrew Rodriguez wore No. 61 (Long's number). A different offensive lineman will change his number to Long's in each game.
Husker kicker passes tough test
Nebraska's inability to finish off some drives led to the most work this season for kicker Pat Smith.
The senior made field goals of 45, 42 and 37 yards against Minnesota. The 45-yarder was a season long and just shy of the career-best 46-yarder he made last season while kicking for Western Illinois.
On the three drives that ended in field goals, NU had first-and-10 at the Gophers' 22, 24 and 16.
“It was nice to get some field goals today,” he said, “but at the same time it's a little bittersweet.”
Smith is now 6 for 6 this season after making all 10 of his attempts as a junior at Western Illinois. He emerged as the Huskers' place-kicker in recent weeks after a battle with Mauro Bondi.
Nothing was easy Saturday. Temperatures were in the low 40s at kickoff with the wind blowing out of the north-northwest at 17 mph.
“It was a little tough,” Smith said. “The wind was swirling quite a bit in there. That open end really kind of messed with the ball a little bit. I just had to go out a little early and hit quite a few balls and see, but at the same time that was nothing compared to Illinois a few weeks ago (in Lincoln).”
Little action for Cross
Sophomore I-back Imani Cross started the scoring Saturday with a 2-yard run as the Huskers took the opening kickoff and drove 69 yards for a touchdown.
It was Cross' team-high ninth touchdown of the season and 16th of his career. He carried only twice for 4 yards Saturday as No. 1 I-back Ameer Abdullah ran for 165 yards on 19 carries.
— Jon Nyatawa, Sam McKewon and Rich Kaipust