LINCOLN — Nebraska’s defense certainly bent, but it didn’t break this time.
One week after allowing Northwestern to rally from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit to pull out a victory in overtime, the Cornhuskers made a stand in Saturday’s 53-28 Big Ten Conference win over Minnesota. Despite the final margin of victory, Nebraska’s back-to-back fourth-quarter stops in the red zone shouldn’t be overlooked.
They allowed the Huskers’ offense to pull away as Nebraska snapped a 10-game losing streak, dating back to last season. NU was also able to give Scott Frost his first head coaching victory for his alma mater after a 0-6 start.
“It was a better feeling than we had the last few weeks,” Nebraska linebacker Luke Gifford said of finally walking off the field on the winning side. “I’m proud of the guys and the way they battled and came out and played a pretty good game, really.”
Nebraska did allow 474 yards of total offense and let the Gophers (3-4) get back into the game after the Huskers had built a 28-0 advantage with 1:58 remaining before halftime. However, the final numbers on the scoreboard were all that mattered to NU defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s unit.
“These offenses are tough to stop from moving up and down the field, but it’s about the points,” Gifford said. “Ultimately, we had a couple of big stops when we needed them.”
Even when Minnesota cut its deficit to 28-22 midway through the third quarter, Gifford said the Huskers remained confident.
“We knew that (Minnesota) had a couple of big plays and they’re a really good team, so they’re going to get a couple of those,” Gifford said. “Coach (Chinander) talked about it before the game that it’s like a boxing match: Keep throwing haymakers and you’re going to get hit with a couple of them, but you’ve got to bounce back from it. I thought we did that pretty well.”
Linebacker Mohamed Barry (11 tackles), safety Tre Neal (10 tackles) and Gifford (nine tackles) led Nebraska’s defensive effort. Defensive end Ben Stille recorded a sack, giving him four on the season.
With Nebraska leading 36-22, the Huskers’ defense made the first of two crucial defensive stops when Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan’s fourth-down pass attempt from the NU 3-yard line fell incomplete. Ahead 39-22, the Blackshirts denied the Gophers in the red zone again when Dedrick Young intercepted a pass in the end zone on a play that started at the Nebraska 7.
“That’s huge and Dedrick coming away with a takeaway,” Gifford said. “We’ve been focusing on getting some more of those and that’s really big in that situation. Fourth down is you against your guy. You’ve got to get after it and we won those battles today.”
After surrendering the lead late against Northwestern, Gifford said the Huskers were determined to produce a different result this time.
“You’ve got to give a lot of credit to the rest of the guys for the mentality that they kept,” Gifford said. “It’s easy to let that doubt start creeping back into your mind, but I was proud of the guys and the way that they responded.
“Frustrating is probably the best word for it just because we’ve done some really good things and haven’t been able to finish. We were kind of searching for that game where we finally put it all together.”
Stille said the turnabout started last Monday.
“We definitely came to practice this week with an urgency to get better,” Stille said. “With all the work that has went into it since the new staff came in and everything that we’ve been through in the offseason — trying to change the culture and everything — it was definitely a weight off our shoulders.”
“We needed this — big time,” Gifford said. “It can snowball and I think it will. We’ve got some games coming up that we feel like we can win and we’re excited for it, so one week at a time, 1-0 and we’ll do what we can do.”