MINNEAPOLIS — The nose of the football sat 6 inches from an improbable third-quarter lead in a poorly played game. Fourth down, goal to go — with a touchdown and a sigh of relief to gain.
The shotgun snap was clean. The offensive line’s push was good. But this is Nebraska football, where something new can — and will — go wrong.
That’s when freshman running back Jaquez Yant took a handoff, moved to his left and lost his footing. He stumbled, then tumbled into the mass of players, falling so short of the goal line he faced away from it by the time Gopher defenders celebrated in field-racing glee.
“It’s football, man,” quarterback Adrian Martinez said after Nebraska’s 30-23 loss to Minnesota on Saturday at Huntington Bank Stadium. “Some guys make mistakes, and we’ve got to continue to play through them. I know Yant would want that one back and we would, as well. You can’t really explain that.”
That gaffe capped the first of NU’s three bad trips deep into Gopher territory. Coupled with Martinez’s fourth-quarter intentional grounding penalty that resulted in a safety and a listless opening half that coach Scott Frost insisted for days the team must avoid, the Huskers will now take a slow, somber boat into what could be a soul-searching bye week.
Well, that and what Frost and players deemed a lack of gameday energy after two straight home night games and seven straight weeks of football.
Frost said he wasn’t sure what to think of his team’s “businesslike” demeanor before kickoff. It’s an older team that Frost trusts to be ready. It’s also typical of Husker football the past decade to sleep in on early starts.
Cornerback and co-captain Cam Taylor-Britt — who had an interception and a sack — said he sensed it when he woke up for the 11 a.m. kickoff, and that Frost tried to address the mood. Defensive tackle and co-captain Damion Daniels had a more blunt answer.
“We came out flat in the first half."
NU (3-5, 1-4 Big Ten) sure did, allowing Minnesota (4-2, 2-1) 247 yards and three touchdowns in the opening 30 minutes. Quarterback Tanner Morgan missed one pass in the first half and eventually completed a school-record 16 straight. The Gophers used their bye week to tweak run formations and packages that had defensive coordinator Erik Chinander switching personnel often. Mostly, the Gophers’ big offensive line and sure-handed receivers beat the Husker D consistently to lead 21-9 at halftime.
“There’s a ton of one-on-one plays out there, we’ve got to make ’em,” defensive end Ben Stille said. “They made them all (in the first half), and we didn’t. I think that’s what it came down to.”
The tide shifted quickly in the second half with Taylor-Britt’s opening-drive interception of Morgan in NU’s end zone. The Huskers punted after three plays, but Morgan threw a second interception to Deontai Williams, who set up Nebraska at the Minnesota 45.
It was the first drive since 2018 that NU had started in Gopher territory and, three plays later, Rahmir Johnson scored a touchdown. Connor Culp, who made a 50-yard field goal earlier, missed the extra point.
The ill-fated goal-line play came on the next drive, in which Yant entered the game because Johnson — who did not return — got hurt. Frost said he’d studied Minnesota game tape enough to think the Gophers played the traditional quarterback sneak well, while Martinez said there can be exchange issues when a predominantly shotgun team goes under center in a high-leverage situation.
Either way, the play failed.
“I think he’d have been in if he hadn’t stumbled in the backfield,” Frost said.
NU’s defense forced a three-and-out. Thanks to a 40-yard pass from Martinez to tight end Austin Allen — who had a career-high 121 receiving yards — the offense moved to the Gopher 9.
Frost turned down a chance to go for a fourth-and-4, instead opting for a 27-yard Culp field goal — that Culp missed.
“I’ve let my problems — that I’ve tried to fix and deal with for a long time — get the best of me,” a glassy-eyed Culp said over the chorus of Minnesota’s band belting out its postgame song.
Did Martinez lobby hard to go for the fourth down?
"It's not my choice, right?” Martinez said. “Obviously the players always feel like they can make plays, and that's no matter the circumstance. Either way, we had confidence in Culp to make the kick, confidence in ourselves to get that fourth down."
Next, Nebraska drove to the Minnesota 29, where a false start — and Frost’s reluctance to lean on Culp’s foot — led him to go for a fourth-and-10 that the Huskers didn’t convert.
Martinez’s intentional grounding penalty — committed in his own end zone as he was getting sacked — submarined the next drive. After Minnesota closed the door with a 56-yard touchdown run from its fifth-string running back, NU drove 75 yards for its final touchdown for, yes, a one-score loss.
Under Frost, the Huskers are 5-17 in those games. They’ve lost them in so many ways. The Punt at Michigan State. The Fumble vs. Michigan. The collapse at Colorado and the trio of gut-punches against Iowa. Now, The Slip that Frost hopes doesn’t turn into a slide. In almost all of them, Nebraska’s offense, alternately explosive and implosive, has played some role in the failure.
What, Frost was asked, can he do between now and a Oct. 30 game vs. Purdue — which stunned No. 2 Iowa on Saturday afternoon — to fix the offense’s repeated errors? Can Frost stop a bad current midstream?
“All I know how to do is keep detailing,” Frost said. “Trying to put the kids in the best plays possible and keep detailing, keep detailing and keep detailing.”
Little details that keep marring the big picture under Frost.
Photos: Nebraska football faces Gophers in Minnesota
Miss any of our coverage of Saturday night's game? Here's our complete coverage from the Huskers' loss to Minnesota.
The Huskers will now take a slow, somber boat into what could be a soul-searching bye week. “It’s football, man,” quarterback Adrian Martinez said. “Some guys make mistakes, and we’ve got to continue to play through them.”