With five minutes left in the game, trailing 27-23, Taylor Martinez and the Nebraska offense came onto the field. They were 91 yards from a go-ahead touchdown. Despite a sluggish performance, Martinez and the Husker offense had a chance to steal a close game on the road. It's the kind of thing that big-time quarterbacks do to beat good teams and put themselves in position to win conference championships.
It was hero time.
Unfortunately for the thousands of Nebraska fans who made the trip, Martinez and his veteran offensive line were not equal to the task – not even against a mediocre Minnesota defense. After a quick three-and-out, the Huskers quickly walked to the sidelines. This is not how you make people remember you fondly.
The 34-23 defeat Nebraska absored at Minnesota Saturday really was not as close as the score indicated. The Gophers, who beat NU for the first time in more than half a century, may prove be a solid team. But Nebraska is not, at least at this point in the season.
The nation yawned. Not only did the upset fail to get banner headline treatment from sports websites like ESPN or Yahoo Sports, it was not even listed as one of the lead college football stories. In other words, the national sports media has come to expect this from Nebraska.
After suffering from a nagging turf toe injury, was Martinez truly well enough to play? Frankly, he looked reluctant to run. If Martinez is not a running threat, he's not an effective quarterback. I was surprised Pelini and Tim Beck decided to use him the whole game after originally saying they would use both Tommy Armstrong Jr. and Ron Kellogg III. But Nebraska has deeper problems than Martinez.
The Huskers, in year six of Pelini's tenure, have not been able to build enough depth and talent in the offensive and defensive lines. It's as simple as that. Spencer Long was an All-American, and there was no doubt he would be missed, but it's disappointing that the o-line looked so inconsistent without him on the field. There were too many three-and-outs. And on defense, it was obvious the Huskers would have a lot of learning to do, but at the end of a gentle October schedule, they are still weak at defensive tackle.
I don't care what alignment you run, when the tackles get abused, any defensive scheme starts to crumble. Teammates are forced to leave their own assignments to compensate, which leaves gaping holes. It was a little like watching the third-string Wisconsin offense, because the Gophers found great success using the same jet-sweep look, and they ended the day with 271 yards rushing. The Huskers look helpless at times against a power running team like Minnesota. It's a good thing they don't have to face the real Wisconsin offense this season.
When your quarterback, offensive line and defensive line are not right, you're in a lot of trouble.
At running back and wide receiver, Nebraska is better off, but aside from Ameer Abdullah, nobody really showed up among the skill positions. The wide receivers were ineffective. Kenny Bell and Quincy enunwa are NFL prospects, but both were unreliable in the red zone against the Gophers. Bell missed a catchable ball in the end zone late in the second quarter, and the Huskers had to settle for a field goal and a 17-13 halftime deficit. In the fourth quarter, Enunwa had a chance to tie the game with a catch at the goal line, but slipped and fell coming out of his cut. On a day when the Huskers needed big-play scores in the worst way, they got none.
The only rock-solid component for the Huskers on this day was placekicking. Pat Smith drilled three field goals from 45, 42 and 38 yards despite unpredictable crosswinds. That was the one area that showed improvement.
Meanwhile, the offensive line was spotty, allowing four sacks after giving up only three all year. The running game produced less than 200 yards. Martinez looked rusty throwing the ball, unsure of himself in the pocket and appreared reluctant to run the ball. It remains to be seen if Martinez and his foot injury will improve, but based on what I see right now, Nebraska has three mediocre quarterbacks. They have a mediocre short passing game. So they might as well stake their hopes on running the ball, and throw some vertical play-action passes. It was good to see more option plays, but I'd like to see more standard pitch plays out of the I formation and the pistol.
This loss is a huge momentum drain for the entire football program. The Huskers appeared confused, distracted and lackadaisical. That's the fault of the coaching staff. The season's first bye week appeared to help the Big Red, but they were noticeably worse on both sides of the ball coming out of this one. Games like this one are a big reason that people start losing interest in a football program.
The Gophers had mediocre athletes and a 16-game losing streak against Nebraska. None of that mattered on a chilly, windy day in Minneapolis, because they ran the ball at will against Nebraska's soft defensive front. the game was a reminder of the 2011 Northwestern game, when the Wildcats pushed around the Husker defensive line. That day, the d-line wore down because it was thin. This year, there are plenty of defensive linemen. They have a budding major talent at defensive end in Randy Gregory, but none of the defensive tackles have played well with any real consistency.
The lack of development in the defensive line is disturbing, but with five minutes left in the game, the young defense got a stop, and Nebraska had the ball at its own 9-yard line. This is where a fourth-year starter at quarterback, with a veteran offensive line in front of him, finds a way to string together four or five first downs and win a tough game on the road. But Martinez didn't come close.
Formerly the sports editor at the North Platte Bulletin and a sportswriter/columnist for the North Platte Telegraph, Tad Stryker is a longtime Nebraska sports writer, having covered University of Nebraska and high school sports for more than 25 years. He started writing for this website in 2008. You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org