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Gophers Beat Cornhuskers 54-21
November 11, 2017

“Last week we got whooped. Today we got better,” said Minnesota coach P. J. Fleck after the Gophers beat Nebraska 54-21, a week after falling flat in a 33-10 loss at Michigan.

Minnesota and Nebraska each came into the game with a 4-5 record, although the Cornhuskers had the edge in conference wins, 2-1. “We talked pregame we needed to start fast. Anytime you play a 4-5 team, it is going to go one way or the other and there’s some type of doubt somewhere in people’s minds. We needed to bring that doubt out early, and that was the message,” said Fleck.

The message came immediately as Rodney Smith took the opening kickoff at the goal line, raced through a pack virtually untouched, and turned on the speed as he moved left for a touchdown runback that put Minnesota ahead 7-0 only 13 seconds into the game.

The teams then exchanged touchdowns on 75-yard drives, the one by the Gophers putting them ahead to stay. Minnesota capped its drive with a three-yard touchdown run as Demry Croft faked a handoff and went untouched around the left side into the end zone. The touchdown was set up by a 22-yard run by Smith after taking a pitch from Croft on an option to the left.

The plays typified Croft’s performance in the game. “He makes that decision,” said Fleck of Croft’s decision on the option. “He knows when to pull it, when not to pull it. He played at a high level today.”

The Cornhuskers marched downfield again and, early in the second quarter, faced fourth down, just inches short of a first down on the Minnesota 6. Tanner Lee handed off to Mikale Wilbon, who was met by safety Duke McGhee, losing a yard and turning the ball over to the Gophers. “Game-changing, result-ending,” Fleck said of McGhee getting the stop.

The Gophers got to their own 27, and, on third and one, Croft faked a handoff to Kobe McCrary. Linebacker Marcus Newby smothered McCrary, but Croft still had the ball, and no one laid a hand on the quarterback as he ran up the middle 73 yards for a touchdown.

Fleck said he has been teaching the sleight of hand performed by Croft, and even the coach was fooled at times on whether Croft had handed off or kept the ball. “That never happens,” said Fleck.

Croft was 9 for 11 passing for 105 yards, but the Gophers did their damage on the ground, getting 409 yards net rushing in the game. Croft led the runners and set a Minnesota record for quarterbacks with 183 yards. In addition to his 73-yard burst in the second quarter, Croft had a run for 64 yards in the fourth quarter, running out of gas and being pushed out at the one but setting up his third touchdown run of the game. Smith rushed for 134 yards and McCrary for 93.

Fleck said Smith ran spectacularly, McCrary ran tough, and Croft “showed what he could do.”

With his kickoff returns, runs, and a 10-yard reception, Smith had 279 all-purpose yards. However, that total was topped by Nebraska’s J. D. Spielman, who returned 7 kickoffs for 150 yards and caught 9 passes for 141 yards. Spielman, the son of Minnesota Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, played at Eden Prairie High School, prompting a post-game diatribe by Fleck on the need to keep Minnesota players in state.

As usual, Fleck concluded his post-game press conference with, “Row the boat, Ski-U-Mah, Go Gophers!” He emphasized the resiliency of the players for a top performance through some disappointing in-conference games. “I’m proud of where we’re at right now. That’s what row the boat is all about.”

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