LINCOLN — Whether it was the festivities of senior day or the nostalgia from the tributes celebrating Tom Osborne’s final home game as athletic director, the Nebraska football team played with high emotion and energy right out of the gate.
After overcoming fourth-quarter deficits in three of their last four games, the Huskers tried a different approach to the final home game against Minnesota.
Nebraska jumped out to a 24-0 halftime lead en route to a 38-14 victory over the Golden Gophers (6-5, 2-5 Big Ten) Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Nebraska (9-2, 6-1) scored on four of its first six possessions and had only one drive in the first half where it failed to gain a first down.
“We had focused all week on really starting well and playing fast because we’ve been coming out a little bit slow the past four or five weeks. I know we’ve been giving some people heart attacks as far as scores went,” said wide receiver Kenny Bell, who had a career game with nine catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns. “It was really important to us this week to start out fast and get into our game faster to throw them off.”
Bell moved his name up the career-receiving list in Husker history, passing Tracey Wistrom, Guy Ingles, Irving Fryar and Matt Herian for sixth on the all-time yards list with 1,250 yards just 11 games into his sophomore year.
The two most consistent aspects of the game for the Huskers were the play of the defense and quarterback Taylor Martinez. The junior threw for 308 yards and two touchdowns on an efficient 21-for-29 on his way to becoming Nebraska’s all-time passing leader. On a day when Husker fans were honoring a part of Nebraska history, it was being made right in front of them.
“It is awesome, because there are so many great quarterbacks that have gone through here, especially (graduate assistant) Joe Ganz,” Martinez said of becoming NU’s top passer.
“He has helped me, and I couldn’t have done it without him.”
Martinez completed his first five passes, with the fifth being a 36-yard touchdown to Bell, capping an 85-yard drive on the Huskers’ second possession of the game that increased NU’s lead to 10-0.
Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini said Martinez has been playing at a high level all season, adding that his veteran experience helped the offense recognize when certain plays were going to work and when they weren’t. Martinez gave all the credit to his receivers.
“Our plan was to just get the ball to the receivers and let them make plays,” Martinez said. “We know that we have really good receivers and that if we could get them the ball anything could happen.”
Three players caught at least four passes on Saturday — Bell led with nine, Jamal Turner added six and Quincy Enunwa had four catches. Bell said he doesn’t want to give all of the credit to one position group individually — it was a total team effort. Each position has a job to do, and he said each position has done its job this season.
Saturday was just the third time this season the Huskers eclipsed the 300-yard mark through the air, and they did it against one of the better pass defenses in the conference. Minnesota entered the game giving up just 168.8 passing yards per game, which was third in the Big Ten.
“Our pass game really revolves around our run game, but that was a little bit different today. We had to throw the ball to run it,” Bell said. “Going in, the game plan was three-step and that really paid off for us today with slants. That led to bigger plays with the play-action post, so that was a good feeling that what we worked on. That’s the first time in four or five weeks that our game plan really fit what we saw on Saturday.”
As well as the offense played, the defense ensured Martinez and crew had all the opportunities needed. Nebraska held the Golden Gophers to just 1-of-13 third-down conversions, with the lone successful third-down attempt coming with less than six minutes remaining in the game.
“I thought our guys were locked in during the week,” Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said. “People talk about letdown games or trap games, and I don’t buy into that. I think the trap happens during the week of preparation, not on the actual Saturday, and our guys prepared really well during the week.”
With the win, the Huskers can clinch a spot in the Big Ten Championship in Indianapolis with a win on the road over Iowa in the regular-season finale or a Michigan loss to Ohio State in Columbus, Ohio. Pelini said the biggest challenge will be dealing with the short week, with Nebraska playing Iowa on Friday at 11 a.m. The Huskers know they have to come ready to play against Iowa if they want a shot at winning the program’s first conference championship since 1999.
One of Saturday’s most memorable moments was when Osborne and Pelini led the team out of the tunnel and onto the field. Bell and safety P.J. Smith said it was an emotional moment and meant a lot to the team. Smith even called it a “blessing.” But Pelini said it took some convincing to get Osborne to lead the charge.
“I asked Coach to do it. He was reluctant to do it, and I thought it was the way it should be. I told him it’d mean a lot to me and to the football team and that it’s the way I think it should be,” Pelini said. “Not just for us, but I think the fans wanted to see him walk out of there one last time. I think it’s obvious why that should happen.”
The pregame was also emotional for the seniors, who were playing their final game at Memorial Stadium. Pelini said the 29-man class has been a special group to him, especially being the first senior class entirely signed by Pelini. Martin, one of those seniors, said his time at Nebraska has been a roller coaster, dealing with injuries and working his way to the starting lineup, but he’s glad he got the chance to be a Husker.
“It was a tough journey. I have been through a lot of rocks and rolls, ditches and bumps. I went through it all here. It was fun going through it,” Martin said. “Looking back, I don’t regret any of it. It was probably one of the best things I have done as a person. It was one of the goals I have accomplished. It was hard getting through all that, all the injuries and not playing was hard. It was hard trying to stay focused getting back to playing. For me to fight through it and have a decent season, I’m happy.”