MINNEAPOLIS — This one hurts.
Maybe as much than getting blown out by Ohio State. Maybe as much as losing in overtime to Northwestern.
This was a game that should have been close, a touchdown one way or the other.
Rodney Smith took the opening kickoff 100 yards for a Minnesota touchdown Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium, and the Gophers were off and running.
“Crushing,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said of Smith’s return. “It’s a fragile group from how the season has gone. It’s been very hard.
“...You want something good to happen. The train jumped off the tracks, it was very hard to put back on.”
This train never got put back on. Minnesota, now a .500 team at 5-5 for the season, just steamrolled the Huskers in a 54-21 Gopher win.
The stats were just plain ugly for the Huskers. Minnesota had 409 yards rushing.
That’s from the Gophers. This wasn’t the 1995 Huskers.
“The whole day was unacceptable, spectacularly unacceptable,” Diaco said.
Fans were disappointed with the game, disappointed with the season. They aren’t any more disappointed than the players and coaches.
You could see it. You could hear it in their voices. They never expected to be 4-6 at this point and they never expected to lose 54-21 to Minnesota.
Diaco, as he tends to do, waxed poetic after the game when he was asked what he told his players.
“I talked about life in this game,” Diaco said. “I’ve been serving the game since I was a child. I’ve had very high moments and extreme success. I’ve had average times. I’ve had below average times and terrible times. This would be one of those terrible, terrible moments.
“But this moment can’t define these young men. This moment can’t define these players. This moment can’t define this staff. It’s just a moment. It’s a big moment. No minimizing it. It’s terrible.”
There were a number of players who stopped by to talk to reporters after the game. Offensive guard Jerald Foster, one of five Husker captains, was one of them. He takes his duties as a captain seriously.
“As a captain, I still have to be able to lead, I have to be able to motivate, keep people going,” Foster said. “That’s not going to change. We still have two games. I’m blessed to be able to be in this position, being looked at by the team as someone who’s pushing forward. I’m going to give it everything I’ve got when I’m on the field.
“It’s hard when games like that happen.”
Senior linebacker Chris Weber is another of those captains.
“It’s extremely disappointing,” Weber said. “It’s not what you want Nebraska football to be. It’s not what we worked all year for, that’s for sure. The investment from the guys, that keeps you going. That’s all you can do. Put your pride out there and play.”
A lot is expected of the Husker program, and it hasn’t delivered this season. Things may have gone spectacularly bad Saturday, but these guys say nobody is going to quit.
“The older guys who have been in the program understand that this is Nebraska,” Foster said. “Losing at this program is hard. It really is because we care too much. We want to win every game. We’re a program that people expect us to win, and we expect to win.”
Two games are left in the regular season. The Huskers are going to have to win at Penn State and beat Iowa at home to earn a trip to a bowl game.
That may seem like a long shot, but Foster said they will be “as hungry as it gets” for a bowl.
“It’s still a Nebraska team, and we hold that strong,” Foster said. “I want everybody to know that we care. We know our fans care. We know our coaches care. As players, we care.
“Going to a bowl would be a big thing for us.”
Linebacker Mohamed Barry said kind of the same thing in a different way.
“We’re not losers,” Barry said. “I’m not going to put my head down and think like a loser. I play for Nebraska. I can’t think like a loser. We have two more games. We win those two and we can go to a bowl game.”
Many of the players have more than two games left in their career. So do the coaches, although as we all know it probably won’t be at Nebraska.
Diaco said they have to learn from this and move on.
“You have to give it its gravity and magnitude, but it can’t define who you are,” he said. “These guys hopefully like me will continue to serve this game. I’ve been serving it for 40 years. God willing I’ll serve it another 30 or more.”
Bob Hamar is sports editor for The Independent.