Cornhuskers Beat Gophers 41-14 in First Big Ten Matchup
October 22, 2011

“Our weakness was not the physical play,” said Minnesota coach Jerry Kill after his team lost 41-14 to Nebraska at TCF Bank Stadium. One play in particular may have set the tone for a mental letdown. The Cornhuskers, leading 3-0, faced a fourth-and-one at the Minnesota 13 when quarterback Taylor Martinez, while being tackled behind the line, pitched the ball back to Aaron Green. Green couldn’t handle the pitch, and the ball bounced off him and out of bounds at the 11. The ruling by the officials game Nebraska a first down at the 11, and, two plays later, Martinez connected with fullback Tyler Legate, who took the pass and rumbled into the end zone.

Nebraska coach Bo Pelini said, “I didn’t understand the rule myself,” regarding the ruling on the fourth-down fumble. The officials explained the rule to Kill, who, after the game, said he thought it was the correct call but frustrating that a team could be rewarded for a mistake. “That was huge,” Kill said. “We didn’t come back from that mentally.”

The situation got worse on the Cornhuskers’ next play from scrimmage as they took over, following a punt, at their 18. Martinez pitched to running back Rex Burkhead, who pitched to receiver Kenny Bell, coming around from the right side. Bell turned the reverse into a big play, racing around the left side, eluding cornerback Brock Vereen, who had fought off a block, and then breaking a tackle attempted by Michael Carter, finally turning back to the right and into the end zone. “Kenny Bell is a pretty explosive player,” said Pelini. “I don’t know how he kept his balance in stayed in bounds.” Pelini liked the design of the play although he acknowledged that his team could have blocked better on it.

After a 25-yard field goal by Brett Maher gave Nebraska a 20-0 lead, the Cornhuskers struck on quickly on defense. On the Gophers’ next play from scrimmage, quarterback MarQueis Gray faked a handoff to Duane Bennett, then lost the handle on the ball, which fell to the ground. Safety Austin Cooper corralled the ball at the Minnesota 11 and ran it into the end zone.

The Cornhuskers added another touchdown in the final minute of the half for a 34-0 lead. Nebraska gained 330 yards from scrimmage in the half to 88 for Minnesota. Gray had better success on the ground (rushing for 60 yards) than in the air (completing 2 of 8 passes for 9 yards).

The Gophers finally broke through in late in the third quarter. After taking over at their 43 following a shanked punt, they went to a flea-flicker featuring a handoff and two pitches, followed by a long pass from Gray to Da’Jon McKnight to the Nebraska 4. A broken play on third-and-goal from the 1 still resulted in a score as Gray dropped the snap, picked it up, and ran into the end zone.

The teams exchanged touchdowns, the Cornhuskers completing a 91-yard drive in the final minute of the third quarter and the Gophers with a 6-yard touchdown run by Bennett, finishing an 89-yard drive, with 1:41 left in the game.

Pelini commended his team on its strong start. “We came out fast, did a lot of good things both sides, special teams, but there are things we could have done better. . . . We left a lot of plays out there on the field.”

Kill lamented the mistakes his team made. They included Bennett dropping the opening kickoff and then, after picking up the ball, getting only to the 11 yard line; an offside penalty on third down that prolonged Nebraska’s first drive of the game, which resulted in a field goal; and an early snap by center Ryan Wynn that hit Gray in the facemask as the quarterback was looking to his left. The latter play resulted in a loss on fourth down, turning the ball over to the Cornhuskers, after the Gophers had driving to the Nebraska 27. Kill noted that the Gophers have no room for such errors.

Both coaches were frustrated by penalties on their teams for personal fouls along with shanked punts.

Nebraska upped its season record to 6-1, 2-1 in conference play in the first season in the Big Ten. Minnesota dropped to 1-6, and is winless in its Big Ten games, losing the three games it has played by a combined score of 144-31.

Burkhead, with 117 yards on the ground, passed 2,000 yards for his career. Martinez completed 13 of 22 passes for 162 yards. Gray connected on 9 of 18 for 122 yards and was the Gophers’ leading rusher with 83 yards. Linebacker Keanon Cooper and safety Kim Royston were Minnesota’s leading tacklers with 12 and 10.

Gopher Holes: Minnesota still leads its series of games against Nebraska 29-21-2, but the Cornhuskers have won the last 15 games between the teams. The last time Minnesota won was in 1960. The last game between the teams was in 1990, Nebraska winning 56-0 in Lincoln. The year before, in the Metrodome, Nebraska beat the Gophers 48-0. A home-and-home series between the teams in the mid-1980s resulted in two more blowouts, Nebraska winning 38-7 at home in 1985 after having demolished the Gophers 84-13 the year before in Minneapolis.

Nebraska came into the game ranked 11th in the USA Today Coaches poll and 13th in the Associated Press poll.

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