Nebraska Football vs Minnesota Photo No. 28

Nebraska's Nick Henrich (white, 42) tries to tackle Minnesota's Ky Thomas (maroon, 8) during the game at Huntington Bank Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

There were some who believed that Nebraska had finally turned a corner, despite the team’s sting of close losses to high-ranked opponents. With a looming bye week, the Huskers traveled to Minnesota this weekend with a chance at .500 going into a much needed week off.

Instead, the Huskers took another course covering why football can be such a cruel sport. Nebraska, looking for its first road victory of the season, fell spectacularly short to the Golden Gophers 30-23, and now have its postseason opportunities on life support.

Here are four takeaways from another Nebraska one-score loss:

Digging a crater never helps

There’s been a recurring theme in Nebraska’s five losses: each loss is by only one possession, and also Nebraska starts slow out of the gates. Against Minnesota, Nebraska scored just nine points in the first half and continued the latter trend this season.

In the first half of each respective game, Nebraska scored nine points against Illinois, three against Oklahoma,10 against Michigan State and zero against Michigan. In other words, the Huskers’ offense has failed to score at least two first half touchdowns in all five of its losses.

The slow offensive start is usually followed by strong defensive play, but Saturday was different. The Golden Gophers scored three first half touchdowns that saw Minnesota take a 21-9 lead into halftime.

In the first half, Nebraska was outmanned at the line of scrimmage and couldn’t generate consistent pressure, nor move run-blockers around. The combination of another offensive slow start along with what may have been Nebraska’s worst half of defensive play so far this season resulted in a hole that the Huskers had no choice to escape from.

The Huskers played much better in the second half, but it still wasn’t enough. It’s easy to point out the specific second half failures, but this would ignore the point that the Huskers’ loss falls on another lackluster first half. The energy of the team, which was much more apparent against Northwestern and Michigan, simply was not present in the first half.

If there is a lesson for a team full of veterans and a four-year coach, it’s that playing mostly behind is dangerous no matter how talented your team is.

Allergic to closing out

This game ended as a 30-23 Nebraska loss, and turned into a tight game fast. In the third quarter, Nebraska picked off senior quarterback Tanner Morgan twice and scored a touchdown off one of those interceptions.

Now a 21-16 game, the Huskers had plenty of opportunities to take the lead after a tumultuous first half. The first opportunity came within inches near the end of the third quarter. On fourth and goal, from practically the one-inch line, freshman running back Jaquez Yant stumbled after taking the handoff and never had a chance of scoring.

Yant’s stumble would continue to haunt the game. When Nebraska was down one score, it never got that close again. Senior kicker Connor Culp missed a 27-yard field goal in the fourth quarter that could have made it 21-19 and while the defense continued to hold its own, the offense kept squandering potential lead-changing drives.

Three separate drives that all drove deep within Minnesota territory resulted in zero points in the second half. The Blackshirts held their own, giving Nebraska another drive starting at its own 11-yard line with just below five minutes left. Minnesota forced a safety on the first play, making it 23-16.

The Blackshirts, holding Minnesota to nothing in the second half, cracked on the last offensive drive before Minnesota kneeled down to ice the game. Minnesota took a 56-yard run up the middle for a touchdown, dashing any hopes of a Nebraska victory as Minnesota took a 30-16 lead with 2:12 left.

Some could say that, based on the Huskers’ late-game performances this season, Nebraska is “anti-clutch” and they may not be wrong. Nebraska had four drives to take the lead and came out of those four drives at a -2 point differential. The defense couldn’t get one more stop, but it may be destiny for Nebraska to only lose by one score in 2021.

Live and die by the Martinez

How did Nebraska, a team who stayed close to the likes of Oklahoma and Michigan, fall behind by two touchdowns in the first half?

Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez is why the Huskers have been competitive in every game and the offense operates on his abilities. If Martinez is playing well, the whole offensive unit runs well as both the run and passing game are on the same page.

Martinez went 6-for-14 for 62 yards in the first half, throwing just about 4.42 yards per attempt, a significant downgrade from his season average of 9.9. The blame could partly be on drops like junior wide receiver Oliver Martin on the first drive, but Martinez had arguably his worst half of the season.

Nebraska’s offense suffered. 

But, when Martinez started to click, the entire offense started moving. The ground game looked stronger and the aerial attack saw junior tight end Austin Allen slice up Minnesota’s secondary in the second half.

Skill position players like freshman running back Rahmir Johnson and Allen were thriving thanks to Martinez but the game would ultimately rest on Martinez’s shoulders. In the fourth quarter, the drives into Golden Gopher territory were stopped due in part to shortcomings from Martinez.

In particular, the quarterback had a couple of passes interfered with at the line of scrimmage, such as a third-and-10 play at Minnesota’s 34-yard line that was tipped. Martinez would be sacked on the following play, but his worst play came on the safety.

On the play, Martinez had a relatively clean pocket, before freshman right tackle Bryce Benhart was beaten by senior defensive lineman Esezi Otomewo. Martinez, instead of moving up in the pocket, went backwards with Otomewo, waiting for him as he backpedaled into the endzone.

Martinez chucked the ball away to a vacant side of the field, but never exited the tackle box, resulting in an intentional grounding penalty and a safety. Minnesota led 23-16, got the ball back following the Huskers’ free kick, and the game was over after that.

Nebraska’s offense runs on Martinez and, when he plays well, the entire offense does too. When he doesn’t, Nebraska’s offense quickly flounders as mistakes become abundant with Martinez’s incompletions and timid pocket awareness becoming apparent rather quickly.

Questionable coaching calls

Neither coach could seriously afford to lose this game, a cruel fact given the sport being played out on the field. 

Minnesota head coach P.J. Fleck, after seeing his quarterback toss two interceptions in the third quarter, bubble wrapped the offense to be as safe as possible.”

“We knew the first 15 plays, they were going to give us everything that they had. We just settled in,” senior linebacker JoJo Domann said. “We were playing angry with a chip on our shoulder knowing that the first half was BS. We just need to start like that.”

After Morgan’s second interception, Minnesota ran 19 times and passed just three times. That’s despite Morgan going 15-for-16 in the first half with three touchdowns and 176 yards. Along with a non-existent Husker pass rush, abandoning what worked for Minnesota made very little sense and seemed to be a relatively panicked move by Fleck.

With Minnesota’s offense turning one-dimensional, the Huskers’ defense created plenty of stops. After a half where Morgan and senior wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell seemingly attacked any Nebraska defensive back, both were called off.

Still, the Huskers needed to execute off those opportunities and failed to do so. One particular questionable decision was a fourth-and-4 at Minnesota’s nine-yard line in the fourth quarter.

The Huskers, down an aforementioned five points, attempted a field goal to cut the lead from one possession to one possession. Culp missed the chip-shot, but one could argue Culp shouldn’t have been on the field.

Nebraska needed a touchdown and there’s no guarantee that the offense would have another opportunity to be that close to the end zone. A field goal also made little sense when in the third quarter, the Huskers went for it on fourth-and-goal. The distance was closer but the payout would’ve been the same, a touchdown.

Living for another possession seemed to be the mindset of both coaches, especially in the fourth quarter, when Minnesota seemed to run three straight times and punt no matter how close to a first down it was.

Nebraska’s offense moved frequently into Golden Gophers territory but failed at converting opportunities to touchdowns. That’s in part to the lack of balance as both drives that entered the red zone when Nebraska was down 21-16 saw seven runs and zero passes.

A lack of balance made the defenses’ job a bit easier when a team specifically relies on only one part of the offense. A resemblance of balance could’ve helped out Nebraska’s offense in finally getting touchdowns.

Decision-making plays a role in any game, and both coaches opted to live for the next possession instead of going for potential knockout blows. Fleck, by default, won due to a balanced attack early on but slowly gave away the game that Frost couldn’t capitalize on. 

sports@dailynebraskan.com