Taylor Martinez missed three straight games because of an injury. Returning Saturday against Minnesota, he showed the rust to prove it.
Martinez was outdueled by Gophers sophomore Philip Nelson, who rushed for two touchdowns and threw for another, in a 34-23 upset of No. 25 Nebraska, the Cornhuskers' first loss to Minnesota since 1960.
The Huskers (5-2, 2-1 Big Ten) went 3-0 in Martinez's absence, but the victories came over FCS foe South Dakota State and Big Ten also-rans Illinois and Purdue.
He returned Saturday from what he described as an injury to the second and third toes on his left foot that he initially suffered in the season opener against Wyoming and has sidelined him since the Huskers' game against UCLA on Sept. 14.
But the Gophers (6-2, 2-2) held him to only 16 yards rushing on eight attempts and 139 yards on 16-for-30 passing, with one touchdown and one interception.
"Right now I just have to feel good enough to tolerate it, and I felt good enough to tolerate it," Martinez said. "I felt good out there running — we just didn't execute very well on both sides of the ball."
The Huskers' offense was hampered by Martinez' erratic throwing and the absence of senior right guard Spencer Long, lost for the season with a knee injury in their last game. But coach Bo Pelini pointed out that there was plenty of blame to go around Saturday.
"Taylor was the least of our problems," Pelini said. "The inconsistency we had up front, we didn't get into a rhythm. We weren't very good on early downs, which hurt us. And the amount of dropped passes we had was inexcusable. Those kill drives."
The most damaging of those missed opportunities came late in the final seconds of the first half, when Martinez's pass to a wide-open Kenny Bell in the back of the end zone sailed high and slipped through Bell's fingers. Instead of a game-tying 25-yard touchdown, Nebraska had to settle for a 42-yard field goal by Pat Smith that cut its halftime deficit to 17-13.
Although Ameer Abdullah rushed for 165 yards on 19 carries for Nebraska, the Gophers outgained the Huskers 271-189 on the ground. David Cobb gained 138 yards on 31 rushes for Minnesota, including 12 carries in the fourth quarter as the Gophers wore down both the Cornhuskers and the game clock.
Gophers offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover used Wisconsin's 70-31 win over Nebraska last December as a blueprint for how his team could move the ball against the Huskers using sweeps and misdirection plays.
"I hate to pick open old wounds, but we watched the Big Ten championship game a lot. I'll just be honest with you," Limegrover said, adding: "We knew we just couldn't pound it, so we wanted to get some things going sideways."
Nelson, who had eight carries for 55 yards, spun across the goal line from the 1 with 48 seconds left to seal the victory for the Gophers, who became bowl eligible and stopped a 16-game losing streak to the Huskers.
Nebraska grabbed the momentum on the opening drive when Martinez hit Bell in stride for a 42-yard completion and Imani Cross finished the six-play drive with a short touchdown run. The Gophers went three-and-out, and the Huskers followed with a 45-yard field goal by Smith to make it 10-0.
But the Gophers withstood Nebraska's uppercut, and midway through the second quarter, on fourth-and-10 from the 33, Nelson flicked a perfect pass over the top of the defense to an outstretched Derrick Engel. He tumbled into the end zone for a 14-10 lead, the Gophers' first over the Huskers in this series since 1969.
The Gophers had gone 11 straight matchups with the Huskers, including each of the last two years as Big Ten games, without holding a lead, let alone getting a win.
The Huskers settled into a bit of a rhythm at the end of the third quarter, fueled by a 35-yard, twisting-and-spinning run by Martinez to set up a short touchdown pass to Sam Cotton that cut Minnesota's lead to 27-20. The thousands of red-clad Nebraska fans, who filled at least one-third of the 50,000 seats, snapped to life in celebration.
But the Gophers relied on Cobb and a resurgent offensive line the rest of the way to grind out the clock and bury the Huskers.
"We just got pushed and we didn't tackle well," Pelini said. "On defense, we had way too many breakdowns. . I'm talking basic football that we couldn't execute and didn't execute. This game comes down to blocking and tackling and we didn't do that very well."