Physical Gophers pound Huskers on ground

Minnesota's Rodney Smith runs for a touchdown during the third quarter. The Gophers ran for 322 yards on 49 carries.

MINNEAPOLIS — The blank faces said it all.

By the time Nebraska defenders trudged off the cold and misty field at TCF Bank Stadium, they had already processed much of the carnage. A 20-point third quarter that blew the doors off a West division showdown. A handful of play fakes that resulted in chunk yardage through the air.

But if the Blackshirts have any nightmares about what transpired in the 34-7 loss Saturday night, the scariest parts will feature runs. Lots of them in all directions, and for distances that had Nebraska D-linemen and linebackers reevaluating just how much progress they had made in recent weeks.

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Senior captain and nose tackle Darrion Daniels said physicality played a major role. Yes, the Huskers need to be better in their fits and assignments. But it’s hard when the opponent is constantly established in the trenches. Minnesota ran for 322 yards on 49 carries. That’s a 6.6 per-carry clip, well above it’s 3.49 average that ranked 106th nationally entering the day.

“It’s just one of those things where it’s like once you get out of position, it messes up everything,” Daniels said. “It messes up what people see. People get knocked out of position. And when you get knocked out of position, it just messes up everything.”

The first-half statistics — Minnesota attempted just seven passes and ran 23 times for a whopping 220 yards (9.6 per carry) — were just the abridged version of the wintry wreck.

Minnesota netted at least 7 yards on all five of its first-possession plays that produced a quick 71-yard touchdown drive. Running back Rodney Smith cut back against an overflowing group of Blackshirts for 35 yards. On the 15-yard tunnel screen where Chris Autman-Bell scored over the middle, NU outside linebacker Caleb Tannor got lost in the mix of bodies to provide the opening.

Some mistakes Nebraska could live with, like 6-foot-2 receiver Tyler Johnson beating the 5-10 cornerback Dicaprio Bootle for a 7-yard slant on third-and-4 (the drive ultimately ended in a punt).

But others proved far more costly. Minnesota’s second-quarter touchdown drive featured a 25-yard run from Shannon Brooks and a 15-yard cutback from Smith. Another running back, Mohamed Ibrahim, found the end zone from 15 yards out.

The Huskers experimented with a four-man front at times — deploying Ben Stille, Daniels and Khalil and Carlos Davis — but it made little difference. Ibrahim ran left for 11 yards on one such look late in the second quarter. Moments later on consecutive plays, middle linebackers Mohamed Barry and Collin Miller overpursued on Brooks runs of 14 and 28 yards.

Minnesota broke the game open through the air in the third. Its first play from scrimmage was a fake handoff that QB Tanner Morgan converted into a 45-yard gain to wide-open Johnson. Over the next three plays, Gopher running backs bulled over defenders and into the end zone for a 21-0 lead.

Coach Scott Frost said Nebraska knew what Minnesota’s run schemes would be. When they worked anyway, it forced the Huskers to put more men into the box, which opened up everything else.

“We need to be more physical on defense so they can’t put us in those situations,” Frost said.

Even when things went right for Nebraska, they went wrong. One run-pass option play fooled the Huskers so badly that no one was within 20 yards of tight end Jake Paulson when he dropped what would have been an uncontested 47-yard score.

Bootle said the Huskers didn’t wrap up either, with the Gophers breaking multiple tackles for extra yards. Even if the middle of the field is being gashed, he said, that shouldn’t allow for the handful of deep pass plays UM connected on as the game got out of hand.

The junior corner said the Blackshirts have plenty to watch and fix over the next two weeks if the season’s final five games are to go as they hope.

“We just need to come back and we need to want it,” Bootle said. “We need to find that want again. Just keep pushing. Just keep trying to build on what we have. We have a great team here. Tonight we didn’t really show that we have a great team here.”

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