It’s all downhill for Nebraska offense after failed fourth and one

Nebraska’s Mikale Wilbon is tackled short of a first down in the second quarter by Minnesota’s Duke McGhee. The game took a turn for the worst for Nebraska after the failed fourth-down attempt. “I mean, we’ve got to be able to get a yard,” said offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf. “That’s happened to us often. It happened to us as (few) times in the game.”

MINNEAPOLIS — Danny Langsdorf needed some time to articulate all the reasons why Nebraska’s offense couldn’t pick up a fourth-and-1 that marked the beginning of the end Saturday.

The Husker attack was humming after taking its first possession 75 yards in 12 creative plays for a touchdown. A 44-yard pass to a crossing De’Mornay Pierson-El had the visitors on the doorstep to another touchdown with Minnesota up 14-7.

But on third-and-6 to open the second quarter, Tanner Lee’s pass to JD Spielman only netted 5 yards. Then, from the Minnesota 6-yard-line, a slow-developing handoff to Mikale Wilbon was blown up by Gopher defenders for a loss and turnover on downs.

The Gophers took the ensuing possession for a touchdown, and the route was on.

Langsdorf said the Huskers saw a loaded “bear” front from Minnesota, something they had practiced last week. But the run to the right side never had the space to work.

“We didn’t get any push on the front side of it,” Langsdorf said. “The safety showed up. If we get some movement on it, we’re going to get the yard. I mean, we’ve got to be able to get a yard. That’s happened to us often. It happened to us a (few) times in the game.”

The minus-1-yard result marked the sixth time Nebraska had rushed on fourth down this season. The previous five went for a total of 9 yards (1.8 per carry).

“It must have been ’backer blitz or something,” tight end Tyler Hoppes said. “I can’t even tell you how it happened but it surprised me that we didn’t get it.”

Langsdorf said the failed conversion affected the decision on NU’s next drive, when the Huskers went three and out. Like the previous possession, a third-and-5 fizzled a yard short when Stanley Morgan gained 4 on a short route. But sitting on their own 36 and with a recent bad memory in mind, the Huskers punted.

Minnesota again landed a touchdown minutes later for a 27-7 lead

“You probably get a little worried,” Langsdorf said. “The part of the field we were on dictated that. So, no, there wasn’t a whole lot of discussion. We were going to punt.”

Any chance of a Nebraska rally a la Purdue last month faded when Lee didn’t emerge for the second half. The junior starter — out with what medical personnel told coaches was an “impact migraine” — had thrown for 174 yards on 13-of-18 passing before bowing out. Backup Patrick O’Brien, who had appeared against Ohio State and Wisconsin after the outcome was decided, completed 12 of 18 throws for 137 yards.

“I thought I played all right,” O’Brien said. “I missed a couple throws. I mean, not to get down on myself, but I have to keep progressing. This is my first time playing in an actual game. I felt I did all right but there is always room for improvement.”

O’Brien learned the news he would start the second half during intermission along with the rest of the Huskers. He had completed 6 of 12 career passes for 55 yards before Saturday.

Lee and the offense will learn the extent of the starter’s injury going forward. Langsdorf said the development was one of many on a forgettable day of what-ifs.

“Very disappointed for him; I thought he was playing great,” Langsdorf said. “He had a couple of plays in that game that he had to get through to the backside of a couple throws and did it great, put the ball on the money. I was just really, really bummed for him. I thought it was one of his best first halves, spreading the ball around and leading us to a lot of good stuff. (But) he was visibly sick. He couldn’t do it.”

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Evan Bland covers Nebraska football, baseball and other sports for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @EvanBlandOWH.

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