Undermanned Gophers pull off gutsy win at Nebraska

Minnesota was without 33 players on Saturday due to COVID-19 and injuries.

Gophers+running+back+Mohamed+Ibrahim+carries+the+ball+at+TCF+Bank+Stadium+on+Friday%2C+Nov.+13.+The+Gophers+fell+to+the+University+of+Iowa+Hawkeyes+35-7.

Emily Urfer

Gophers running back Mohamed Ibrahim carries the ball at TCF Bank Stadium on Friday, Nov. 13. The Gophers fell to the University of Iowa Hawkeyes 35-7.

Paul Hodowanic

Less than an hour before the start of Saturday’s Minnesota-Nebraska game, reports surfaced that the Gophers would be without 33 players due to COVID-19 and injuries.

It was just the latest alarming reminder of the struggles the Gophers have had containing COVID-19 in their program and the lengths at which a college program will go to continue play.

Minnesota hadn’t played a game since Nov. 20 against Purdue, as it paused all-team activities in an effort to thwart an outbreak.

Yet even without a fourth of their roster, the Minnesota Gophers put together one of their most complete performances of the season, topping the Nebraska Cornhuskers 24-17 on the road. The win moves the Gophers back to .500 for the first time this season.

“We just wanted our players to play with incredible effort for each other and I thought they did that,” head coach P.J. Fleck said. “I thought our game plan was really well put together.”

The Gophers’ (3-3) good play started early.

Defensive back Tyler Nubin intercepted an Adrian Martinez pass with 11:20 to play in the first quarter that set Minnesota up on the Nebraska 35-yard line. Three plays later, on fourth-and-one, Mohamed Ibrahim broke through the Nebraska defensive line and scampered all the way into the end zone for a 26-yard score to put the Gophers up 7-0.

Minnesota’s strong defense continued on the next drive, forcing a Cornhusker punt. Then on offense, the Gophers converted on a 31-yard field goal to take a 10-0 lead. It was just the second time all season that Minnesota kept its opponent scoreless through the first quarter.

But as soon as the quarter changed, so did Nebraska’s (2-5) fortunes. After gaining just 11 yards on seven rushes in the first quarter, Nebraska gashed the Gophers defense for 107 yards on 13 carries in the second quarter.

That helped the Cornhuskers score touchdowns on back-to-back drives to take a 14-10 lead with less than three minutes to play in the half.

But thanks to a 61-yard run by redshirt freshman Cam Wiley on the Gophers first play of the drive that set them up in the red zone, Minnesota was able to respond quickly. A few plays later, Tanner Morgan found Brevyn Spann-Ford in the back of the end zone for a touchdown as the Gophers reclaimed a 17-14 lead. Morgan finished 17-30 for 181 yards and a touchdown.

That lead would hold for much of the second half as neither offense could create much momentum. The Gophers punted twice and turned the ball over on downs in their opening three drives of the half. Nebraska missed a field goal, punted and fumbled on its first three drives.

However, Minnesota was able to capitalize off the Nebraska fumble, taking over at the Cornhuskers’ 39-yard line and scoring nine plays later with an Ibrahim one-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-goal.

A 30-yard field goal by the Cornhuskers cut Minnesota’s lead to seven with less than five minutes left, but the Gophers and Ibrahim were able to put them away. Ibrahim ran for 59 yards on the final drive as Minnesota wouldn’t give the ball back to Nebraska. Ibrahim finished the game with 108 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

“It was really good to finish it on offense. I thought our defense did a great job holding them to a field goal, an awesome job,” Fleck said.

This week and season has presented more challenges and changes than Fleck has seen in his career. After the game he even went as far as saying, “this has been the hardest year I have ever had as a head coach and I’ve been 1-11.”

To stay safe the team didn’t eat team meals together. They didn’t have any meetings together. They didn’t even do a pregame speech in person, opting for a pump-up talk over Zoom before the game. Yet for players, as long as they can go out and play, they’re happy.

“Obviously, there are things that are hard,” Morgan said. “But fun is overcoming adversity. Fun is responding. Fun is executing. Fun is finishing a game, finishing a drive. All those different things and being around our team for a chance to play football because we didn’t for two weeks. That’s fun. Even having the opportunity to play football is a blessing.”

The Gophers’ next opponent remains undetermined. The conference planned the week of Dec. 19 games to be Big Ten East-West matchups based on standings. However, Minnesota and Wisconsin have been pushing to reschedule its previously canceled game for next week instead. An announcement on all conference matchups is expected Sunday.