Nebraska Football vs. Minnesota Photo No. 17

Nebraska’s Logan Smothers (8) prepares to catch the ball during the game against Minnesota at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022, in Lincoln, NE.

In junior quarterback Casey Thompson’s absence, Nebraska football turned to backup quarterback redshirt freshman Chubba Purdy. Despite a strong start, that choice ultimately didn’t pay off in the Huskers’ eventual ugly 20-13 loss to Minnesota. 

The Huskers were not suited to get into a slugfest with Minnesota, which possesses a much better defense and rush attack, but that's what they found themselves in. Thanks to a dominant first-half defensive effort though, Nebraska took a 10-0 lead into halftime.   

The vaunted Golden Gopher rush attack that ranked No. 12 in the country, totaled -7 total rushing yards through the first two quarters. It was a glorious return to 2021 form for a Blackshirts defense that has been by far the worst in the Big Ten this season. Minnesota senior running back Mohamed Ibrahim, who came into Saturday’s contest just figurative inches away from 4,000 career yards, looked like no more than an average back before halftime. 

The Huskers’ defensive line, while talented, had largely underperformed up to this point. However, against Minnesota, who allows the fewest sacks in the Big Ten, Nebraska looked like a pass-rushing juggernaut. The Huskers finished with eight tackles for loss and three sacks, the majority of which came in the first half. They made senior quarterback Tanner Morgan’s life difficult, eventually knocking him out of the game. 

The Huskers ran the ball well early too, taking another page out of Minnesota’s book. Junior running back Anthony Grant was the main beneficiary of an overwhelmingly run-first scheme, compiling 115 yards in the loss. He is the first Husker with five 100-yard rushing games in a season since 2018. 

In an attempt to mitigate Purdy’s shortcomings, the Huskers ran the ball 38 times compared to just 26 pass attempts. Although limited through the air, Purdy did make some nice plays with his legs to extend drives early. 

Nebraska’s offense looked to be in for a big day after a quick touchdown on its first drive, but that sentiment didn’t last long. The signs of a faltering Husker offense began in the first half, but became even more obvious once the defense began relenting points. That 10-0 advantage quickly turned into a 20-10 deficit as the Golden Gophers began to wear down the Blackshirts' defense. 

After his first two drives, Purdy struggled mightily. His lack of arm strength was on full display as he also made poor decisions with regularity. The majority of his passes were either extremely underthrown or too far over receivers’ heads. Purdy somehow avoided a turnover until the fourth quarter, when his poor play culminated in an interception on yet another severely underthrown ball. 

The decision not to hand the keys to sophomore quarterback Logan Smothers until late in the fourth quarter was an odd one. After it was clear Purdy couldn’t operate the offense, the Nebraska coaching staff should have abandoned their staunch commitment to him. Smothers has shown himself to be a competent orchestrator of the offense before, namely in 2021’s season finale. While he doesn’t offer elite potential, it couldn't get much worse for the floundering Nebraska offense. Purdy is billed as the superior passer, but Smothers threw a much prettier ball on his limited opportunities.

 When Smothers took over with nine minutes remaining, the offense finally began clicking again. Following six straight three-and-outs, the Huskers looked noticeably more effective on Smothers’ second drive. On his first deep pass attempt, Smothers displayed arm strength that Purdy had not shown all game. Junior wide receiver Marcus Washington caught that toss for a crucial fourth-down conversion and the first 15+ yard Nebraska completion of the game. 

The Huskers cashed in the drive for a field goal, their first points since 4:18 in the first quarter. On that singular possession, Smothers racked up more passing yards (44) than Purdy had throughout the contest.   

On the final Husker drive, Smothers once again looked poised and clearly capable of running the offense. Facing a seven-point deficit, he made the necessary throws to give Nebraska a legitimate chance of tying it late. Though the comeback effort came up short as junior receiver Trey Palmer couldn’t come up with a catch on fourth down, Smothers proved he should have been the starting quarterback against Minnesota. Should Thompson miss extended time, Smothers should be the starter going forward. He finished with five completions for eighty yards. 

In an odd twist of fate, the Golden Gophers turned to their backup signal caller, freshman Athan Kaliakmanis, too. The Gophers swapped Morgan out to start the second half, a change that spurred a Golden Gopher comeback attempt.  

Minnesota’s offense operated significantly better with Kaliakmanis under center, quickly exceeding its first-half output in just two drives. Ibrahim finally heated up too, aided by a read-option scheme that confused Nebraska’s defense. When they couldn't get to him in the backfield, Ibrahim made the Huskers pay with his bruising run style. 

Ibrahim rallied in the second half to finish with an impressive 128 yards and two touchdowns. Kaliakmanis delivered when called upon, throwing for 137 yards on six completions. 

Still, Nebraska’s defense held Minnesota to 20 points and 300 yards and even gave its offense a chance with a late third down stop. The Blackshirts unit has seen steady improvement over the past month, and outside of the Purdue loss, has not given up 400 yards since September. 

Nebraska may wonder what would have happened had Smothers played the entirety of the second half.