Gallery: Leidner’s career day not enough for Minnesota

Published 10:15 am Monday, October 19, 2015

Minnesota defensive back Adekunle Ayinde breaks up a pass to Nebraska's Cethan Carter in the end zone Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. — Micah Bader/Albert Lea Tribune

Minnesota defensive back Adekunle Ayinde breaks up a pass to Nebraska’s Cethan Carter in the end zone Saturday at TCF Bank Stadium. — Micah Bader/Albert Lea Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS  — Nebraska was reeling from four losses already this fall on the opponent’s final offensive play, stirring up angst among the proud program’s ardent fans just halfway into coach Mike Riley’s first season.

This was quite the recovery — and the sigh of relief.

Tommy Armstrong Jr. bounced back from a pair of bad performances to start Big Ten play, passing for 261 yards and three touchdowns to start the salvaging of Nebraska’s season and steer a 48-25 victory over Minnesota on Saturday.

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“Hey, let’s just have fun. Let’s make a statement. Everybody’s counting us out,” Armstrong said, describing the team’s mentality.

Terrell Newby rushed for 116 yards and two first-half scores on just 13 carries for the Cornhuskers (3-4, 1-2), who pummeled the Golden Gophers (4-3, 1-2) on the line of scrimmage after the opposite occurred the last two matchups.

“It was one of those things,” Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. “We weren’t moving them.”

Nebraska predictably had plenty of fans on hand, with the two campuses a six-hour drive apart. Red hats, jackets and jerseys were packing the corners of the upper deck, interspersed throughout the lower bowl and spotted all over the Twin Cities this weekend. They had most of the stadium to themselves to chant “Go Big Red!” to their heart’s content by the end, with the frustrated home crowd largely emptied out.

“I’m really happy for everybody involved here, the coaches, the players and our fans,” Riley said. “I’ve said all along: They’re the greatest in the world. All they want to do is win, and we all certainly understand that.”

Mitch Leidner did his best to keep Minnesota competitive against Nebraska’s FBS-worst pass defense with career bests in completions (26) and yards (301). He threw two late interceptions, one that was returned by Joshua Kalu for a 41-yard touchdown, after passing for one touchdown and running for another.

K.J. Maye had 94 yards receiving and a 7-yard touchdown run, but the Huskers were ready for just about everybody else.

“With what we’ve been through this year, it feels good to get a win,” Newby said.

The troubling trend for the Gophers was that Leidner was as sharp as he’s ever been, completing 16 of 17 passes for 156 yards in the first half, but they still got blown out. After scoring on the opening drive, their first touchdown in the first quarter this season, they let the Huskers tie the game in three plays when Newby galloped through a gaping hole in the middle and bounced outside for a 69-yard scoring scamper.

After rushing for 271 yards in a victory over Nebraska here two years ago and 281 yards in a win in Lincoln last season, Minnesota was stymied for 65 yards on 26 attempts with defensive tackles Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine doing plenty of damage inside.

“It was just us a physical mentality we brought to the game,” said Collins, who mentioned the 281 yards from last year as motivation.

Alonzo Moore, Cethan Carter and De’Mornay Pierson-El were the touchdown targets by Armstrong, who completed only 36 percent of his passes for a total of 234 yards in losses to Illinois and Wisconsin the last two weeks.

Pierson-El, who fumbled near the goal line in the closing minutes of Minnesota’s 28-24 win at Nebraska last year, missed the first four games with a foot injury. He had a 42-yard punt return and the catch of the game in the corner of the end zone early in the fourth quarter when he tipped the ball to himself between two defensive backs.

Carter’s reach to push the ball over the pylon in the third quarter marked the end of a 99-yard march in 10 plays by the Huskers, the defining stretch against an injury-affected Gophers defense that had been so good this season and the last two.

“It’s frustrating, looking at our goals that we set early on in the season and looking where we’re at now, but it’s just part of the game,” Leidner said. “Things like this just happen, and you’ve just got to be able to keep fighting back.”