Nebraska defeats Minnesota for Scott Frost’s first victory as Husker head coach

Nebraska defeats Minnesota for Scott Frost’s first victory as Husker head coach
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — It’s over. The streak has been broken.

Nebraska won its first football game in 357 days Saturday, taking down Minnesota at home 53-28. The Huskers sprung out to a 28-0 lead, but a furious Minnesota comeback turned the game into a shootout, which Nebraska won in the end.

The victory is Scott Frost’s first as Nebraska’s head coach and breaks the program’s 10-game losing streak.

True freshman Adrian Martinez completed 25 of his 29 passes for 276 yards and three touchdowns. He added 125 yards on the ground and another score. Senior running back Devine Ozigbo scored twice on his first three carries, and finished with 152 rushing yards. True freshman Maurice Washington was Nebraska’s third 100-yard rusher on the day. He had 109 yards and a fourth-quarter score. Senior Stanley Morgan led NU with 10 catches for 163 yards and two scores.

Minnesota quarterbacks Zack Annexstad and Tanner Morgan combined to complete 20 passes for 349 yards. Nebraska held the Gophers to 125 rushing yards and 3.5 yards per carry. Nebraska averaged 8.9 yards per rush.

Nebraska is now 1-6 and will host FCS opponent Bethune-Cookman next week.

Ozigbo started the game with touchdown runs from 59 and 40 yards. The Husker defense kept the Gophers at bay in the first quarter while Martinez completed his first 11 passes and ran in NU’s third score from 3 yards. Martinez later found JD Spielman through the air to make it 28-0 with 1:58 left in the first half.

Annexstad completed four passes for 72 yards on the Gophers’ final drive of the first half. He found Demetrius Douglas in the flat on third-and-10 for a touchdown. A two-point conversion made it 28-8 just before the gun.

Annexstad was replaced by quarterback Tanner Morgan in the second half because of an injury, and on his third play a screen for wide receiver Chris Autman-Bell went for 69 yards. That put Minnesota at the 4-yard line, and the Gophers scored two plays later. The 28-point deficit was suddenly 13 early in the third quarter.

Nebraska went three-and-out and it was on again for Minnesota, which put together an eight-play, 79-yard drive that ended in a 4-yard touchdown by Seth Green. And in 8:14 of playing time, Nebraska’s four-score lead was down to one.

Nebraska responded with a four-play drive to reclaim a multi-score lead. Martinez tossed a pass to Morgan between the hashes, and he scored from 35 yards. Morgan caught a two-point conversion pass to make it 36-22.

Minnesota drove to the Nebraska 5-yard line, but an offensive pass interference call bumped the Gophers back to the 17. They couldn’t convert on a fourth-and-2 and Nebraska took over.

At that point, Frost slowed the Nebraska tempo and tried to kill clock. The Huskers ran nine times on the drive, including a Martinez burst for a 37-yard run to put the Huskers in the red zone. A 32-yard field goal from Barret Pickering capped off a 14-play, 82-yard drive for Nebraska that ate up nearly half the quarter.

Douglas returned the ensuing kickoff 87 yards to the Nebraska 13.

But two plays into the drive, Dedrick Young picked off a pass and Nebraska took back over.

On first-and-10, Minnesota bit hard on a run-pass-option, and Martinez threw a lob to Morgan, who sprinted 67 yards for the score. At that point, it was 46-22.

A rushing touchdown by Minnesota’s Morgan cut the lead to 46-28 with 4:14 left in the fourth.

Washington answered back with a score of his own in the final minutes to make it 53-28.

‘Weight off our shoulders’

LINCOLN — Ben Stille grabbed the podium with both hands and faced reporters with a straight face.

“How about a smile?” asked a reporter. The 6-foot-5, 290-pound defensive lineman obliged.

It felt good to talk about a win, the sophomore said, after a 10-game losing streak that visibly wore on the coaches and players. But Nebraska 53, Minnesota 28 might be even sweeter for the guys who grew up in the state and have seen the toll the defeats can have on family and friends.

The former Ashland-Greenwood standout is ready for a different topic of discussion around home moving forward.

“All the work that’s went in since the new staff came in (and) everything we’ve been through in the offseason just trying to change the culture and everything,” Stille said. “It was definitely a weight off our shoulders.”

Players enjoy end of skid

Lamar Jackson and Dicaprio Bootle touched heads and laughed. Devine Ozigbo skipped past teammates along the bench.  Barry wrapped an arm around  Washington and watched a replay of the freshman running back’s fourth-quarter touchdown with childlike awe.

It was only a snapshot of the celebration that was 10 games and 357 days in the making. Chants of “Whoop, there it is!” echoed from the Nebraska locker room afterward.

“Finally!!!!!” tweeted receiver Mike Williams.

Tweeted offensive lineman Brenden Jaimes: “Stay with us. Can’t let up now. Still have more to prove!”

“This team has kept an immensely positive attitude,” Ozigbo said. “Especially with things that we’ve gone through, that’s kind of surprising. But to finally get a positive result, all that work and all that fighting through all the losses and fighting through the downs is paying off. Practice on Monday should be exciting.”

Taylor, the freshman cornerback, said coaches, recruits and players were “going crazy” in the locker room afterward. And why not?

“I believe it will just boost us up because everybody knows what winning feels like,” Taylor said. “They know how to win big now that we’ve got the ‘W,’ and I just think the train is going to keep going.”

No interference on play

Bootle saw Minnesota receiver Chris Autman-Bell run for the back pylon and he knew what was going to happen.

On Nebraska’s biggest defensive play of the night — a fourth-and-goal from the NU 3-yard line — the Gophers were going to try a fade route.

Bootle was ready. He covered it, and the pass from quarterback Tanner Morgan hit him in the back. That meant Bootle hadn’t turned around before the pass landed. Sometimes, officials will call pass interference in those situations.

Not Saturday.

“You know me — I’m always confident that it’s not a PI,” Bootle said, referencing the shorthand for pass interference. “Even if people tell me it’s a PI, I say, ‘No, it’s not a PI.’ I’m confident in my abilities.”

Bootle said he’d received “some really bad calls” on pass interference in previous games.

Minnesota’s receivers, Bootle said, were among the better ones Nebraska has faced this season.

Evening the score

Carlos Davis tries hard not to think about last season.

But he can’t forget that loss to Minnesota. The 54-21 drubbing last November.

“It just sits in the back of your head,” Davis said.

Nebraska put up 53 on the Gophers in Saturday’s win. Davis wished it was 60.

“Just keep it going,” Davis said. “Just because, thinking about last year and what happened to us last year.”

Davis said he “definitely” felt like Minnesota ran up the score a year ago. And he wanted some payback. He got it.

Redshirt tracker

No new Nebraska true freshmen lost their redshirt eligibility Saturday, though a number of Huskers continue to draw closer to the four-game limit under the new NCAA rule.

Cornerback Braxton Clark appeared in his second game  while running back Miles Jones played in his first, though neither player was listed on the postgame participation chart. Another player coaches have targeted to potentially redshirt is true sophomore Deontre Thomas, who didn’t play Saturday and has been in the maximum four contests.

Kicker Barret Pickering and Caleb Tannor notched their seventh games for Nebraska, while fellow freshmen  Washington, Adrian Martinez and Taylor were in their sixth. Other true frosh who have logged at least one game are CJ Smith (two games, leg injury), Cam Jurgens (one, foot injury) and Andre Hunt.

Quick hits

Martinez, NU’s true freshman quarterback, completed 25 of 29 and threw for 276 yards and three TDs. He also ran for 125 yards.  Minnesota coach PJ Fleck thinks he’s already one of the best players in college football. “I think he’s one of the better players in the country already,” Fleck said. “He’s a running back that’s an incredible quarterback. He’s so fast, he’s so quick, he’s bigger than you think and he can hurt you.”

Martinez’s outing set NU’s single-game school record for completion rate on 20 or more passes. His percentage was 86.2 percent. In 1991, Keithen McCant completed 17 of 19 passes — 89.5 percent for 231 yards in a win over Oklahoma State.

Barry wasn’t just pleased Nebraska won. He was pleased with how they won. Dominating in the first half by going up 28-0 and dominating down the stretch to seal the win. “Not only to win but to win the way we did, we were happy with the way we came out and dominated our opponent,” Barry said. “We didn’t just want to win this game. We wanted to dominate this opponent because of that last loss, because we knew we should’ve won that game.”

The holding call against Minnesota in the first quarter was the first accepted by Nebraska on a pass play in a 21-game span, dating to Illinois in 2016.

While Husker freshman shines, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck can only lament his teams youth, woes

LINCOLN — Minnesota started seven freshmen on offense. And at one point Saturday, the Gophers had five freshmen on defense.

But it was a freshman on the other team who wrecked the Gophers for 401 total yards.

Nebraska quarterback Adrian Martinez did that damage with 276 passing yards and a career-high 125 rushing yards to lead Nebraska to a 53-28 victory.

 

“That was maybe the best offensive performance they’ve played all year,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said of the Huskers. “I saw from Martinez exactly what you saw from Martinez. I think he’s one of the better players in the country already.

“The reason why he’s ranked so high and the reason why he was a big-time quarterback coming out, and everybody wanted him, and there’s a reason why he flipped here. Because he knew he could come in and play and start and create his legacy and what he’s going to leave at Nebraska football.”

Martinez helped the Huskers build a 28-0 lead before Minnesota could score with less than one minute remaining in the first half.

Minnesota’s attention on Martinez helped open lanes for others such as running back Devine Ozigbo and wide receivers Stanley Morgan and JD Spielman. Fleck said Martinez’s skills make him a double threat.

“He’s a running back (who is) an incredible quarterback,” Fleck said. “He’s so fast, he’s so quick, he’s bigger than you think. Man, he can hurt you.”

Injuries have taken a toll on the Gophers’ depth, and the frustration of four consecutive losses after opening the season with three nonconference victories began to seep through as Fleck continued to answer questions.

Fleck’s vexation was never directed at the questioners; the more he talked about Minnesota’s losing streak, the more his exasperation showed.

“I’m a positive guy, so I’m going to keep looking at all of the positive things,” Fleck said. “I’m disappointed, darned right. Very disappointed. Take the result away, and I’m disappointed about the week of practice we had to how we executed.

“There’s do and do not. You either do it or you don’t. There’s a lot of cases where we didn’t.”

Several times Fleck referred to the Gophers as “the youngest team in America.” Mix that youth with injuries, and it becomes clearer why times are tough in Minnesota.

“We talked about before the season, first of all we had to stay completely healthy or everybody else is young,” Fleck said. “We lost our four best players. Then we lost our other next-best players. Everybody else is young behind them.

“And it’s hard to get those guys, those true freshmen at times, to play like seniors right now.”

The tone of Fleck’s voice then changed, becoming more animated as he started answering questions with questions.

“These guys are really good coaches,” Fleck said. “You think they don’t know that? You don’t think Scott Frost doesn’t know that? Did you see how the runs were designed to funnel it towards certain people? That’s how you do it as a coach.

“That’s why I said I got outcoached, period.”

Fleck understood this wouldn’t be an easy game.

“Congratulations to Nebraska and Coach Frost on his first victory,” Fleck said. “It’s a big deal. Everybody remembers their first. They deserved it. They played a really, really good football game.

“I said at the beginning of the week that this team should be 5-1 or 4-2. They’ve lost on some really strange, oddity-type plays. We didn’t stop them tonight at all. We didn’t come close to stopping them.”

A holding call on what would have been Minnesota’s first touchdown was a moment that Fleck reflected on during his postgame comments. It came on Minnesota’s first drive after Ozigbo’s 40-yard touchdown run less than two minutes into the game.

The Gophers were driving when quarterback Zack Annexstad completed what would have been a 37-yard TD pass to Rashod Bateman. Senior center Jared Weyler was called for holding, nullifying the touchdown . Minnesota eventually had to punt.

“We had a holding call on the first touchdown that we had, and that got called back,” Fleck said. “I think it’s a completely different game if that’s not a holding penalty.

“When you get down 28-0, and right now, we’re not designed with seven freshman starters on offense, we’re not designed to come back from that type of deficit without going outside of our comfort zone.”

Fleck said Annexstad had to leave the game and was taken to a hospital “with an internal injury in his midsection.” Fleck thought Annexstad would be released so he could join the team on its trip back to Minneapolis.

Redshirt freshman Tanner Morgan replaced Annexstad and helped the Gophers close to 28-22 before Nebraska’s offense got back on track to outscore Minnesota 25-6 the rest of the game.

“I thought he did a great job coming out of the half, and I thought some of our young receivers did a tremendous job,” Fleck said. “They’re learning valuable lessons right now.”

Husker receiver Stanley Morgan has a big hand in the relief fans, players feel after skid ends

LINCOLN — The losing streak was finally over, but Stanley Morgan wasn’t done working his hands.

As the last seconds ticked off Nebraska’s 53-28 win over Minnesota, the senior receiver darted behind the bench on the west sidelines and high-fived a few young fans leaning against the red chain-link fence. He pumped his left fist, grinning at no one in particular as he jogged onto the field.

Then as Scott Frost was doing a live postgame interview on BTN, Morgan snuck up behind his coach and playfully cupped his neck. Much like Minnesota’s defenders, Frost turned around to see the New Orleans native running the other direction.

“It was just a relief off my shoulders,” Morgan said of the victory. “We work so hard — practice throughout the week — guys deserve this.”

The numbers for Morgan — a career-high 10 catches for 163 yards and two touchdowns — dwarfed any of his production during the 0-6 start. His 35-yard third-quarter score let the Memorial Stadium sellout crowd breathe as NU re-established a healthy lead at 36-22. His 67-yard run to paydirt in the fourth iced the game, helping end a drought of 357 days between Husker wins.

Coaches said they wanted to target him more after the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Morgan made two catches for 31 yards in the overtime loss last week at Northwestern. The co-captain — who turned down the NFL in the offseason and took a chance on the new staff — is commonly mentioned by teammates as a key reason why the Huskers continued to have upbeat practices amid the winless start.

“These guys feed off me, and that’s the role I got right now. That’s the role I love,” he said.

“In our offense the ball is going to go where it’s supposed to go based on what (the defense) gives you a lot of times,” Frost said. “And then we try to sprinkle some things intentionally to try and get people the ball. I was kind of disappointed the ball didn’t find Stanley a lot last week and you see what kind of player he is. He’s been a great player for a while.”

Morgan’s 156 career receptions rank fourth in Nebraska history, 25 behind Kenny Bell for the record. His final touchdown was the 18th of his career, tying for fourth on the program chart — Johnny Rodgers is the career leader at 25.

The best game of the year before Saturday for Morgan was an eight-catch, 93-yard effort at Wisconsin. His only other touchdown came against Troy.

Morgan said coaches moved him around the field more this week, giving him chances against underneath and over-the-top coverage. Running back Devine Ozigbo said he’s been just as impressed with the receiver’s maturity as he was with Saturday’s exploits.

“Stan has been getting, like, quadruple-covered because everybody knows who he is,” Ozigbo said. “He’s had a less productive season just because of how good he is. He just stuck in there, moved around, never got down about it all throughout the season. Finally it just busted open for him.”

 

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