By Steve Beideck
MINNEAPOLIS – Those things Nebraska worked all spring to avoid – turnovers, penalties and substitution infractions – ultimately left the Huskers to ponder an all-too-familiar result in their 2023 season opener.
A 47-yard field goal by Dragan Kesich as time expired Thursday night gave Minnesota a 13-10, come-from-behind victory over the hard-luck Huskers before a crowd of 53,629 at Huntington Bank Stadium.
Four turnovers by the Huskers, including three interceptions thrown by new quarterback Jeff Sims, were the toughest blows for the Nebraska faithful to take. Those mistakes left Nebraska with a fourth consecutive loss in a season opener and spoiled Matt Rhule’s debut as head coach.
All those defeats came away from Memorial Stadium in Big Ten Conference games at Ohio State (2020), Illinois (2021) and Northwestern last season. That game with the Wildcats was a Northwestern home game that was played in Dublin, Ireland. Nebraska hasn’t won a season opener since a 35-21 victory over South Alabama on Aug. 31, 2019.
The Huskers also were whistled for seven penalties totaling 55 yards. One of those penalties was a substitution infraction on the offense. The Huskers were also flagged for a disturbing signals penalty.
While Sims, a transfer from Georgia Tech, finished as Nebraska’s leading rusher, the three interceptions at crucial junctures tarnished an otherwise decent first game in a Husker uniform.
Sims ran the ball 19 times for 91 yards, with a long of 26. He also completed 11 of 19 passes for 114 yards and one touchdown. Despite the three interceptions, Sims finished with a quarterback rating of 94.1.
Nebraska’s lone touchdown came on a play that seemed destined for disaster early in the third quarter. Sims handed the ball off to running back Anthony Grant, who went to his right before turning to throw the ball back to Sims.
Fortunately for the Huskers the pass was a lateral that went behind Sims, who scooped it up after Grant’s toss went over his head. After picking up the ball, Sims threw it to the end zone where wide receiver Alex Bullock was standing by himself.
The 34-yard pass was the first TD reception for the sophomore from Omaha Creighton Prep. Bullock was NU’s leading receiver with three catches for 56 yards. Receiver Marcus Washington also caught three passes for 31 yards.
The touchdown play was set up by a 63-yard kickoff return by Rahmir Johnson to open the second half. It was a career long for the junior from New York City.
Nebraska’s defense had one of its best performances in recent years by limiting the Gophers to 251 total yards. That’s the fewest number of yards allowed since Nebraska held Maryland to 206 yards on Nov. 23, 2019.
Minnesota, which now has won five consecutive games over the Huskers, took a 3-0 lead early in the second quarter on a 34-yard Kesich field goal.
The Huskers were in position to tie the game or take a halftime lead in the final minutes of the first half. That drive was short-circuited by a false start penalty on Ethan Piper and the Sims interception from the 6-yard line with seven seconds remaining before the intermission.
Freshman kicker Tristan Alvano gave Nebraska a 10-3 lead with the first field goal of his career, a 27-yard boot with 12:42 remaining in the game. After the teams traded three-and-outs, Nebraska was driving toward a potential game-clinching field goal when Grant fumbled after a 9-yard gain.
It was the break Minnesota needed, and the Gophers tied the game with a 13-yard touchdown pass from Athan Kaliakmanis to Daniel Jackson on fourth-down with 2:32 remaining in regulation. Jackson managed to drag his back foot in the end zone before landing out of bounds.
Nebraska had one last chance to put together a game-securing drive, but Sims threw his third interception of the game. That turnover eventually led to the game-winning field goal by Kesich.