Nebraska football finished out its regular season on Saturday with a 24-17 loss to Minnesota.
The Golden Gophers controlled the game from start to finish, jumping out to a 10-0 lead and never giving it up. Minnesota forced two turnovers in the game, and held the ball for 10 more minutes than Nebraska did.
Meanwhile, the Huskers got in their own way again. Similar themes such as special teams mishaps, a crucial targeting penalty and questionable playcalling were all present in the loss.
Here are three takeaways from the game:
Nebraska’s second half performances continue to disappoint
This season, how Nebraska starts a game has been more important than how it finishes.
Although it’s a relatively small sample size, the Huskers haven’t been able to win without starting out hot. In the victories against Penn State and Purdue, Nebraska led by three scores at some point in the first half. The Huskers took a first-half lead into the locker room against Northwestern, but that was by six points.
However, this trend is less about how the team does in the first half, and more about how consistently horrendous the second half performances prove to be.
Nebraska has been outscored 106-39 this season in second halves, and has only not been outscored in the second half once, which was essentially garbage time in the loss to Illinois. On the other hand, the Huskers have outscored opponents by 10 total points in first halves. Even in losses, Nebraska has only been outscored by an average of 5 points in the first half.
That isn’t ideal, but worse is the fact that the Huskers have been outscored by 9.5 points on average in second halves this season, and 9.4 in losses.
That trend was a little less egregious today, but it was still apparent. Nebraska trailed 17-14 going into halftime with 188 yards on 4.9 yard per play. In the second half, the Huskers scored just three points and had 120 yards on 4.4 yards per play.
Minnesota also played a bit worse in the second half, outscoring Nebraska but scoring just one touchdown on less yards per play. However, the Golden Gophers still executed their gameplan well. Minnesota held the ball for over 20 minutes in the second half, draining the clock effectively. The team’s final drive lasted nearly five minutes as it ran out the clock up just one score.
What the Huskers have shown this season is that to win, they need to jump out to a big lead, because their production likely won’t remain at the same level down the stretch.
Defense puts Nebraska in position to win
What kept Nebraska in the game was a strong defensive performance. Once again, it may not seem like it on paper. The Blackshirts failed to force a turnover for the second straight week, allowed nearly 400 yards and let up 4.9 yards per rush.
However, the defense did what it needed to, and was put in poor spots on multiple occasions.
Minnesota’s first touchdown came after Nebraska redshirt freshman quarterback Luke McCaffrey threw an interception in Husker territory. The Golden Gophers then scored a field goal after Nebraska punted the ball eight yards to its own 49 yard line.
The next drive, Nebraska’s defense forced a turnover on downs, which then gave the Huskers momentum for the ensuing touchdown drive. The Blackshirts’ worst moment perhaps came when it allowed a 61-yard run on Minnesota’s last full drive in the first half. Junior cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt was ejected for targeting a few plays later and the Golden Gophers finished it off with a touchdown to take the lead with just over a minute remaining before halftime.
To start the second half, Nebraska forced two straight punts and then a turnover on downs. The Husker offense rewarded the defense’s efforts by missing a field goal, going three-and-out and then fumbling. After the fumble, Minnesota scored its last points of the game on a fourth-and-goal 1-yard touchdown run by junior running back Mohamed Ibrahim.
Nebraska’s defense couldn’t force a stop on Minnesota’s final drive, but despite the unit’s mistakes, the loss wasn't on them. Ultimately, the loss was a result of the offense’s failures to convert on their opportunities.
Huskers fail to jump on bigger picture opportunities
It’s crazy how easy it is to get optimistic after a single win.
I understand the positivity that was around the program after the Nebraska victories against Penn State and Purdue.
After the Huskers took down the Nittany Lions, it seemed that things could be looking up. The Huskers had lost to two undefeated teams at that point, both of which will be playing for the conference championship, and the back half of the schedule was relatively easier. Despite Penn State’s miserable start, it seemed somewhat realistic that Nebraska could win most, if not all of its remaining four games.
Illinois the following week was a reality check. But optimism returned to the Huskers after a win against Purdue. Junior quarterback Adrian Martinez looked good in the loss to Iowa, and had his best game of the season against the Boilermakers. All Nebraska had left on its schedule was today’s game against a depleted Minnesota team that hadn’t played since three weeks ago and the week nine crossover game.
The ideal, and also very possible, scenario for the 2-4 Huskers was that they’d beat Minnesota, take down whoever they play in week nine to finish 4-4 and be a strong candidate for a bowl game. That would make this season Nebraska’s best under head coach Scott Frost.
Instead of playing like it did in its two wins, Nebraska performed more similarly to how it did in its four other losses. Perhaps it was naive to think that the Huskers, who have dropped to 1-6 following wins since 2019, would carry over their momentum to the season finale.
The past few years under Frost, Nebraska has had chance after chance to finish with a much more respectable record. In 2018, the Huskers lost inexcusably to Troy and Northwestern. Last year, they blew a 17-0 lead against Colorado and failed to stop Purdue’s third-string quarterback from driving down the field for a win.
This year, the Huskers had their chance to make strides, but have wasted all of their best chances and barely hung on in wins.
It’s a big “If,” but in an alternate universe where those games go differently, Nebraska could be looking at its third-straight bowl eligible season. Instead, the Huskers once again failed to get out of their own way and show through their record that the program has made progress.
The Huskers sit at 2-5 and are last in the Big Ten West for the first time. It’s unclear if there will be a time anytime soon where Nebraska can be trusted to take advantage of its biggest opportunities.