September 1, 2023
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Dragan Kesich kicked a 47-yard field goal for Minnesota as time expired after Daniel Jackson’s toe-tap touchdown catch from Athan Kaliakmanis tied the game with 2:32 left, and the Gophers beat Nebraska 13-10 to ruin Huskers coach Matt Rhule’s debut on Thursday night.
Tyler Nubin had two of Minnesota’s three interceptions of Nebraska newcomer Jeff Sims, including a leaping grab and 14-yard return in the final minute that gave the Gophers the ball at their 49. Kaliakmanis completed three short passes. Then Sean Tyler had a first-down run to get them in range.
“From there, everything went black,” said Kesich, who made a 34-yard field goal and missed a 54-yarder in the first half. “That’s the moment kickers dream of.”
Kaliakmanis went 24 for 44 for 196 yards and one interception plus the tying score to Jackson.
“That’s why we call plays to him,” Kaliakmanis said.
The Gophers set up the tying touchdown with a turnover, too, when Justin Walley whacked the ball out of Anthony Grant’s arm to give them the ball at their 47. Bryce Williams converted a fourth-and-1 run, and a facemask penalty pushed the ball to the Huskers 28.
After three straight incompletions from the 13, Kaliakmanis and the Gophers had one more shot. The sophomore slid to his left and threw off balance toward the streaking Jackson, who managed to complete one of the most difficult and dramatic catches in program history.
He grabbed the pass in stride at the edge of the end zone, somehow managing to tap his right toes on the turf and flip his left heel up high enough to keep his lead foot from hitting out of bounds first.
“That’s a ‘wall’ catch,” coach P.J. Fleck said. “That’s a picture that goes on the wall that will be in our home forever.”
Sims, who transferred from Georgia Tech, rushed 19 times for 91 yards. He completed 11 of 19 passes for 114 yards and a broken-play touchdown that gave the Huskers the lead early in the third quarter.
“We just can’t beat ourselves,” Johnson said. “Protecting the ball, that’s the most important thing.”
Rhule, who spent three seasons in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers, has successfully built up programs before. Those first years were rough, though. He went 2-10 at Temple in 2013 and 1-11 at Baylor in 2017. The Huskers were 23-45 over the last six seasons.
“He’s got them going where they need to go,” Fleck said. “You can see a massive difference in how hard they play.”
The Gophers, in front of their first sellout at Huntington Bank Stadium in two years, a red-tinged crowd that got a healthy boost from traveling Huskers fans, stretched their winning streak over the Huskers to five straight games. The Gophers have announced sellouts for three other games since Fleck took over in 2017, against Penn State and Wisconsin in 2019 and the season opener against Ohio State in 2021.
The Huskers were inches short of finishing the first half with a touchdown, but after strange sequence of events in the red zone they left with nothing but a turnover. Sims backpedaled from the 6 and threw into a crowd for an easy interception by Tre’Von Jones, who transferred to Minnesota from Elon.
Rahmir Johnson gave the Huskers a huge spark to start the second half with a 65-yard kickoff return. Then came their big break, created by some exceptional awareness from Sims.
Ervin took a second-down pitch toward the right sideline, stopped and tossed the ball back to the quarterback. The throw was high and wide and slipped through Sims’ fingers, but he plucked it off the turf to avoid losing a fumble and quickly reset realizing he could still try a forward pass. Alex Bullock was wide open in the end zone for the 34-yard score.
Huskers left guard Ethan Piper was called for a false start that wiped out what would’ve been a touchdown by Sims on a sneak. The dead ball penalty actually made the previous play reviewable, a 3-yard run by Ervin on first-and-goal from the 4. The second look upheld the original call that Ervin’s elbow hit before the ball crossed the line. Then Sims was picked off on the following play.
Nebraska: With four turnovers and seven penalties, the Huskers got in their own way many times. With a new coaching staff and a new quarterback, such first-game unevenness could well be expected.
“We’re on the front end of something we’re building,” Rhule said. “I’m not even thinking about anything that happened before I got here.”
Minnesota: The absence of all-time leading rusher Mohamed Ibrahim, not to mention All-American center John Michael Schmitz and both starting guards, was clearly felt. The inside zone runs that Ibrahim feasted off just didn’t develop for Tyler, the Western Michigan transfer who had 10 carries for 41 yards.
Nebraska: Plays at Colorado on Sept. 9. The two former Big 12 rivals have played twice since the Huskers joined the Big Ten, with the Buffaloes winning in both 2018 and 2019.
Minnesota: Hosts Eastern Michigan on Sept. 9. The two schools have never met in football.