MINNEAPOLIS — Tanner Morgan threw for 209 yards and two touchdowns and Bryce Williams rushed for 127 yards and another score on Saturday as Minnesota defeated Nebraska 30-23.
The Gophers dominated the first half, taking a 21-9 lead behind near-perfect passing from Morgan. But Nebraska (3-5, 1-4 Big Ten) flipped the script in the second half, forcing two interceptions to get back into the game. However, a number of missed opportunities prevented the Huskers from taking the lead and allowed Minnesota (4-2, 2-1) to hang on.
“Little details got us beat,” Nebraska head coach Scott Frost said. “I know the guys are kind of tired of hearing that. I’m tired of saying that, but that’s what it is. We got to do little things a little bit better and get this much better.”
Given short fields twice in the third quarter after Minnesota punts, the Huskers drove deep into Gophers territory but came up empty both times. First, the Gophers defense made three consecutive stops at the goal line to force a turnover on downs. Then Nebraska kicker Connor Culp missed a 27-yard field goal on the first play of the fourth quarter.
The Huskers faced another decision midway through the fourth quarter when it was fourth-and-10 from the Minnesota 34. Trailing 21-16, Frost elected to go for it, but a heavy pass rush forced an incompletion and another turnover on downs.
“I'm proud of these guys for the way they came together," said Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck. “When the momentum was shifting, they didn't blink one bit. It wasn't going our way at times, but they never blinked."
Offensively, the Gophers were practically flawless in the first half. They scored touchdowns on three of their first four drives. The only blemish came early in the second quarter, after Minnesota had driven to the Nebraska 33. On second-and-8, the Gophers tried a trick play — a double-reverse flea flicker — that Huskers cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt blew up for a 12-yard loss. That possession ended with Minnesota missing a 50-yard field goal.
Morgan was 14-for-15 for 171 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. He went on to set a school record with his 16th consecutive completion early in the third quarter, though his streak was snapped when Taylor-Britt picked off his next pass in the end zone.
Morgan's next pass was intercepted, too, and this time the Huskers took advantage. Safety Deontai Williams' pick set up Nebraska at the Gophers 45, and three plays later Rahmir Johnson scored his second touchdown of the game on a 1-yard run to cut Minnesota's lead to 21-16.
With five minutes to play and Minnesota leading 21-16, the Gophers punted instead of electing to go for it on fourth-and-1 near midfield. On first down from his own 11, Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez was wrapped up in the end zone by Esezi Otomewo. Martinez threw the ball away but was called for intentional grounding, resulting in a safety that made it 23-16.
Minnesota got the ball back after the safety and pushed its lead to 30-16 on a 56-yard touchdown run by Bryce Williams with 2:12 to play. Nebraska managed a late touchdown, but Minnesota recovered an onside kick to seal the victory.
The Huskers have lost five games this year by a total of 28 points. Their largest margin of defeat was an eight-point loss at Illinois in the season opener. They've also lost by seven at then-No. 3 Oklahoma, and by a field goal against ranked teams in Michigan and Michigan State.
“It’s hard to point at one thing besides executing down there,” Martinez said. "There’s 11 guys on the offensive side. One guy can’t make a mistake. Everyone’s got to be on the same page. The amount of detail, attention to detail, it’s something we’ve been working on. It’s something we know is a focal point for us. We just have to keep pushing forward, have to continue to work on those things and go from there.”
Gophers wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell has been in and out of the lineup this year, missing two full games and most of another with injuries. But he and Morgan showed what a devastating combo they can be on Saturday as they hooked up 11 times for 103 yards and a highlight-reel touchdown as Autman-Bell made a leaping catch in the corner of the end zone. His return to full health couldn't have come at a better time, according to Morgan.
“It's a huge difference, because of his leadership and obviously because of his playmaking,” Morgan said. “The energy he brings to the field — 7 (Autman-Bell's number) really gets me going. Chris knows me really well, he knows how to get me motivated.”
Nebraska: Culp, the reigning Big Ten kicker of the year, had a rough outing on Saturday. Despite making a 50-yard field goal, he missed an extra point in addition to pushing a 27-yard field goal attempt wide. Those misses loomed large as Frost kept his offense on the field twice on fourth downs in Minnesota territory.
Minnesota: The Gophers were playing their first game without running back Trey Potts, who became the main man in the backfield when Mohamed Ibrahim, the Big Ten's leading rusher last year, was lost for the season in Week 1. Potts had three straight 100-yard games before suffering a season-ending injury against Purdue. On Saturday, Williams emerged as the next man up, rushing for 127 yards on 17 carries.
Nebraska: The Huskers are off until Oct. 30, when they host Purdue.
Minnesota: The Gophers host Maryland on Saturday afternoon.