As two defenders surrounded him in the second quarter, Derrick Engel jumped in the air and reeled in a 33-yard touchdown grab. After the throw, sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson sprinted toward the end zone, his hands in the air, as the University of Minnesota took the lead over the University of
It was a lead the Gophers (6-2, 2-2 Big Ten) never relinquished en route to a 34-23 win over No. 25 Nebraska (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten). With the victory, Minnesota became bowl eligible for the second straight season, and fans poured out of the stands onto the field to celebrate the biggest win in the Jerry Kill era.
“We’re starting to believe, and that’s really all that needs to be said right now,” Nelson said. “We have the confidence … we’re finally starting to realize how good we really can be.”
Kill, who is currently on leave to focus on his epilepsy treatment, watched the game from the coaches’ box for the second straight week.
Gophers defensive coordinator and acting head coach Tracy Claeys said he thought last week’s 20-17 win at Northwestern was a big boost for the team’s confidence.
The Gophers flashed that confidence Saturday, particularly in the Nelson-to-Engel connection.
In last week’s game against Northwestern, Minnesota elected to play it safe and settle for a field goal at the end of the first half. Gophers kicker Chris Hawthorne missed the field goal, and the team went into the locker room tied.
Minnesota didn’t settle this week against Nebraska.
It was 4th-and-10 from the 33-yard line and they opted to go for it, instead of punting or trying a long field goal.
“[We] said, ‘You know what, we didn’t come here to lay up,’” offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover said. “That’s kind of a saying around the office. We didn’t come to be passive in that situation.”
That bold call played a big role in the bowl-clinching win.
Still, Claeys said the Gophers are not happy with just six wins this season.
“We’ve got a lot left we can accomplish, and we’re playing very confident right now,” he said. “[The players] have to learn now how to handle the success. If we do that, then we’re going to look to finish strong.”
A little ‘soul-searching’
After the Gophers’ 23-7 loss to Iowa on Sept. 28, Limegrover said he did a lot of “soul-searching” to jumpstart the offense. He said he decided it needed to shake up its game plan.
“We needed to get the ball on the perimeter more and kind of loosen people up,” Limegrover said.
That’s exactly what the Gophers did against Nebraska, running jet sweeps with receivers like redshirt senior Engel and wide receiver Donovahn Jones. Jones, a true freshman, finished with 42 rushing yards on four carries.
Minnesota was creative and unconventional on offense all game, motioning and constantly shifting offensive sets to keep the Nebraska defense off-balance.
That offensive creativity was especially noticeable early in the third quarter.
The Gophers trotted out a jumbo package with offensive lineman Ben Lauer lined up as a wide receiver. Lauer jumped up and down calling for the ball after the snap, which caught the attention of the Cornhuskers’ defense.
Nelson sold the fake to Lauer, then fired a 21-yard dart over the middle to tight end Drew Goodger. Goodger finished the game with a career-high 68 receiving yards.
Limegrover said the play is called “Husker Bob Y-Go.”
Nelson said the team was excited about the game plan this week.
“We knew going into this week that Nebraska’s the type of defense that you can’t let them get comfortable,” he said.
Limegrover said that the motivation for the offensive focus against Nebraska stemmed from the Cornhuskers’ 70-31 loss to Wisconsin in last year’s Big Ten championship game.
“We watched the Big Ten championship game a lot,” Limegrover said. “We loved what Wisconsin had done [in that game] and started picking and pulling pieces from that.”
Minnesota hadn’t beaten a ranked team in Kill’s tenure prior to the upset Saturday. It had lost 16 straight games to Nebraska and hadn’t topped the Cornhuskers since 1960.
The Gophers weren’t thinking about that history Saturday.
“I wasn’t here back then. I wasn’t here 30 years ago,” Claeys said. “I was a freshman in high school. Those [games] have no meaning to us.”
After committing to a program that only won three games during his senior year at Mankato West High School, Nelson said he couldn’t believe the turnaround the Gophers have made during his time with Minnesota.
“I can’t even put it into words how unbelievable of a feeling it is to go out there and come out victorious with my teammates and coaches and all of the fans out there,” he said. “It was unbelievable.”