MINNEAPOLIS — Nebraska's slow start on offense Saturday wasn't exactly shocking. We've seen that enough this season, particularly in games away from Memorial Stadium.
But Tanner Morgan and the league's worst passing team slicing and dicing the Blackshirts to build a 21-9 lead by halftime at Huntington Bank Stadium was worse than shocking. It was downright stunning.
Morgan completed 14 straight passes — including a highlight-reel touchdown pass to Chris Autman-Bell — as Minnesota, playing as three-point home underdogs, scored touchdowns on three of its first four possessions.
No doubt, in a puzzling season, the Blackshirts have been Nebraska's steadying force. The one phase of the game that the Huskers could count on to be reliable, if not excel in.
The defense's start was confusing. Cam Taylor-Britt said in his postgame news conference that he "didn't feel like everybody was awake and ready to play this 11 o'clock game."
The Huskers, especially the Blackshirts, entered Saturday playing for more than the state or any electronic bulb on the giant scoreboard at the south end of Minnesota's stadium.
No, Saturday was much more significant. On Thursday, Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander's father, Gene, died in a car accident in Iowa. He was 69.
"I can say I personally did play for Coach (Chinander)," Taylor-Britt said afterward. "He's like a father (to me). When there was times I had stuff going on and I couldn’t go back home, he was there for me. So once he lost his father, it hurt. He was pretty close to the team. He (Gene) loved us."
So maybe it was fitting that Taylor-Britt, a team captain and three-year starter who clearly has developed a powerful bond with his position coach, made the play that ignited the Nebraska defense's complete shift in play.
Leading 21-9 on the opening drive of the third quarter, Minnesota had a sterling opportunity to take a three-possession lead. Morgan had just completed his school-record 16th consecutive pass, and the Gophers were pushing the right buttons in the run-pass option game to teeter into Nebraska's territory at the 33-yard line.
Then, Morgan went for the home run. Turns out, Taylor-Britt coaxed the QB's confidence.
Morgan lofted a ball down the sideline towards Mike Brown-Stephens, who had created at least 1 yard of space between himself and Taylor-Britt.
That's when Taylor-Britt swooped into position and snared the slightly underthrown pass for an interception, which went for a touchback and gave the Huskers the ball trailing by just 12 points instead of 18 or 19.
From there, Nebraska's defense dominated. In the first half, Minnesota racked up 179 yards in the air, 100 of them to Autman-Bell, who played one of the best games of his already distinguished college career. After Taylor-Britt's interception, Morgan mustered just 3 passing yards on five attempts.
"We took away what they do well," Nebraska linebacker JoJo Domann said. "We had two picks. They shut down, plain and simple. ... and that’s what we wanted."
The Huskers weren't able to capitalize on Taylor-Britt's interception, instead punting after a quick three-and-out. But another field-tilting play came just moments after.
One minute and 42 seconds later, to be exact, Morgan threw a ball straight at Nebraska's Deontai Williams, who caught the easy interception on Minnesota's 45.
This time, Nebraska promptly moved down the field, and Rahmir Johnson's 1-yard score punctuated a brisk three-play drive that pulled the Huskers within 21-16 with 9:29 remaining in the third quarter.
After a first-half hiccup, the Blackshirts did what they have done all season. Minnesota's first six drives after halftime went like this: two interceptions and four punts before Minnesota running back Bryce Williams sprung loose for a 56-yard TD late in the fourth quarter after the Nebraska offense simply refused to cash in on the opportunities produced by its defense as the Huskers ultimately fell 30-23.
The loss stings. Observe Frost or any Husker player's demeanor in the postgame news conference, and that point is clear.
But it's temporary. In fact, later this week, we are sure to hear just how Nebraska players and coaches alike are working to put another confounding loss behind them.
Chinander doesn't have that same luxury. Not this week.
"It really just puts things into perspective how football is amazing, football is life, but also there’s so much more to life," Domann said.
"I respect the hell out of him for sticking with us and coaching with us."