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Husker Report Card: Grading Nebraska's performance against Minnesota

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Sam recaps the Huskers' loss to Minnesota.

MINNEAPOLIS — After each game this season, The World-Herald's Sam McKewon will hand out his Husker Report Card, assessing Nebraska's performance in several areas. Here are the grades coming out of the Minnesota game.

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RUN OFFENSE

A lot of cutesy, fancy running to the edge of the field. Sometimes it worked pretty well — like the speed options executed by Rahmir Johnson. The Zavier Betts reverse was special, too. Other times, you longed for more of the quick power plays that broke open runs for Johnson and Jaquez Yant. Of course, when NU needed points on the fourth-and-goal from the 1, Yant, filling in for a banged-up Johnson, lost his footing right before he reached the line of scrimmage. Nebraska’s not yet “there” to just line up and smash a team like Minnesota, which has big if not always fast defenders. Johnson’s injury loomed large. When he left, neither Yant nor Sevion Morrison were big enough for the moment. GRADE: C-minus

PASS OFFENSE

The Gophers played coverage, carried the deep receivers well and made quarterback Adrian Martinez read the defense. Unless Austin Allen (who was terrific) was available over the middle, Martinez struggled to locate secondary receivers. He threw too often to a well-covered Samori Touré when check-downs to backs were available. Because Minnesota rarely brought more than four rushers, Martinez had time, too. He just didn’t throw the ball well. The plan was to make sure Martinez didn’t beat the Gophers with his feet. Mission accomplished. He never had that back-breaking scramble, but he did have the back-breaking error by taking an intentional grounding penalty in the end zone for a safety with five minutes left. GRADE: C-minus

RUN DEFENSE

It’s worth noting Minnesota’s rush attack averaged 192 yards per game coming into Saturday. It didn’t stink, and while it had a few moments in the first half, Nebraska successfully adjusted to the Gopher schemes. Garrett Nelson and Caleb Tannor — with tough assignments against giant Minnesota linemen — played those edges better in the second half while Nebraska tackled cleaner on the cutback runs as the game went on. Minnesota had 100 yards on 35 carries deep into the fourth quarter. You’d take that, right? NU gave up the long run at game’s end, yes, but remember that it came after a gut-punch safety. GRADE: D

PASS DEFENSE

For a half, Tanner Morgan turned into Joe Montana. He completed a school-record 16 passes in a row before throwing into double coverage and Cam Taylor-Britt’s waiting arms. It was Taylor-Britt’s first interception of the season. Otherwise, Morgan poked holes in NU over multiple drives. Outside of Taylor-Britt lucking his way into a sack because Minnesota ran an elaborate trick play right into his blitz, NU got zero pass rush. Defensive backs couldn’t match up with receivers Chris Autman-Bell and Mike Brown-Stephens while Minnesota exploited weaknesses in NU’s zone coverage strategy — like having the same middle linebacker who couldn’t cover Michigan tight ends last week cover Minnesota slot receivers. In one half, the Gophers completed 15 of 16 passes for 171 yards and three touchdowns. It’s as bad as NU’s pass defense has been under Scott Frost … until the second half, when two Nebraska interceptions slowed Minnesota’s pass attack considerably. Morgan helped with two terrible passes into coverage. GRADE: C-minus

SPECIAL TEAMS

Connor Culp nailed a 50-yard field goal then missed an extra point and 27-yard field goal. William Przystup performed at an above-average clip as a punter, but coverage guys failed to down one inside the Minnesota 20. Kickoff coverage units were good. Punt return was not a factor. When special teams costs NU points — and it did — it’s an automatic two-letter downgrade. GRADE: F

PLAYCALLING/GAME MANAGEMENT

Nebraska’s first offensive drive wasn’t merely poor execution, but super fast — 45 seconds — and effectively allowed the Gophers to receive two opening kickoffs. Option pitch, incomplete pass, incomplete pass. Yuck. The two-minute drill blew up in its face again. To drive inside the Minnesota 10 twice in the third quarter and not score is stunning, and Frost will rightly be questioned for his decision to kick a field goal instead of attempting a fourth-and-5 at the Gopher 8. Our call? Go for it. Relying on two more field goals from Culp was an iffier proposition than making 5 yards. NU’s defense didn’t roll the right first-half dice against Minnesota’s offense, either, but that’s at least as much a mental and physical issue as a schematic one. The Gophers have a playing style that does not suit the Huskers' defensive scheme or personnel. Kudos to NU making second-half adjustments on defense. GRADE: D

OVERALL

Nebraska’s offense is a mess. To drive three times in the second half into Minnesota territory — twice inside the 10 — and not score at all? It’s playcalling, it’s execution, it’s a revolving door of personnel at the skill positions, it’s a lot of things. The Husker defense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain in the first half and Minnesota, at game’s end, had a massive time of possession advantage just like it wanted. The Gophers controlled the game and rowed their boat right over NU. The second-half failures in Minnesota territory are the kind that, in a bye week, may trigger significant changes. GRADE: D

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