The first game of Matt Rhule’s tenure at Nebraska looked very familiar.
Minnesota’s Dragan Kesich hit a 47-yard field goal as time expired to give the Gophers a 13-10 season-opening win over the Huskers. The field goal was set up by Nebraska’s fourth turnover of the game when quarterback Jeff Sims was picked off by Tyler Nubin with 56 seconds to go.
— FOX College Football (@CFBONFOX) September 1, 2023
Simply put, Minnesota escaped. The Gophers were dreadful for most of the game. Especially on offense. But many of the same mistakes that plagued Nebraska in recent seasons reared their head again on Thursday night.
The Gophers tied the game with 2:32 to go on an incredible catch by Daniel Jackson. He somehow got his left foot down in the end zone as he was heading out of bounds on fourth down. The TD capped a slog of a 10-play drive after Nebraska’s Anthony Grant fumbled with 4:53 to go.
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Minnesota’s offense did enough over its final two drives to get the win but was incredibly bad overall. QB Athan Kaliakmanis was 24-of-44 passing for 196 yards and threw an interception while the team averaged just 2.2 yards a carry. Nebraska overwhelmed the Minnesota offensive line on numerous occasions and the Gophers simply couldn’t create anything resembling a consistent running game.
Nebraska’s one-score woes
It’s a stat Nebraska fans knew by heart before Rhule was hired as the team’s coach in November: The Huskers were 5-22 in one-score games under former coach Scott Frost.
The trend didn’t change on Saturday night thanks to a turnover problem that plagued the team all throughout Frost’s tenure.
Sims, a former Georgia Tech quarterback who came to Nebraska over the offseason, threw three interceptions and was just 11-of-19 passing for 114 yards. While he added 91 yards rushing, he showed a tendency to lock into his first read far too often.
Sims’ interception at the end of the first half was especially bad. Nebraska had a chance to take the lead entering halftime but Sims simply didn’t see the coverage and threw a horrid pass.
The Huskers’ only touchdown of the game came at the start of the second half following a 63-yard kick return by Rahmir Johnson. Sims threw a 34-yard TD to Alex Bullock on a trick play after dropping the backwards pass to set up the touchdown throw.
It looked like Nebraska was somehow going to escape with the win for much of the second half thanks to Minnesota’s offensive impotence. But Nebraska got in its own way again with the two turnovers in the final five minutes to gift Minnesota the chance to win.
Rhule came to Nebraska after successful rebuilding jobs at Temple and Baylor. And most rational Nebraska fans understood that it wasn’t going to be a quick fix in Lincoln. Thursday night proved just that. Nebraska will be competitive in 2023 and may even pull a big upset or two. But Thursday night also proved that old habits are hard to break.