MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said he watched quarterback Demry Croft run read-option plays with running back Rodney Smith on Saturday and twice yelled “fumble” into his headset.
Croft had the Gophers’ first-year coach as confused as Nebraska.
Croft ran for 183 yards and three touchdowns, Smith added 134 yards rushing and a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, and Minnesota ran over the Cornhuskers 54-21 on Saturday.
Kobe McCrary had 93 yards rushing and three touchdowns for the Gophers, who finished with season highs of 409 yards rushing — eighth-most in school history — and 514 yards of total offense. Minnesota scored its most points in a Big Ten game since a 63-26 win against Indiana in 2006.
“We had this since training camp, really,” Croft said. “We just put it all together, all three phases of the game, today.”
Croft’s big day included an untouched, 73-yard touchdown run up the middle for a 20-7 lead at the start of the second quarter and he had a 64-yard scamper in the fourth as he set a school record for rushing yards in a game by a quarterback.
“I thought he did a great job deciding when to pull it and when deciding not to pull it,” Fleck said of Croft running the read option. “I think that’s where the growth has come from. . The decision on him being able to pull it, he made those decisions. Weeks in the past, he didn’t make those decisions as well.”
The Gophers (5-5, 2-5 Big Ten) held Nebraska to 69 yards rushing on 33 attempts.
Redshirt freshman JD Spielman, a Minnesota native and the son of Vikings general manager Rick Spielman, caught nine passes for 141 yards for the Huskers (4-6, 3-4).
Smith set the tone for the day by taking the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, the first time the Gophers returned an opening kickoff for a score since 1998 when Tyrone Carter had an 86-yard touchdown return.
“It started bad and went from there,” Nebraska coach Mike Riley said. “The opening kickoff was really a setback for us. It didn’t have to be a killer. I thought we responded really well, and then we responded again after that and then got stopped on fourth down, and we never really did stop them from there.”
The game might have turned on a defensive play by Minnesota early in the second quarter.
The Huskers came back after Smith’s kick return touchdown with a 12-play, 75-yard drive that ended in a touchdown run by Mikale Wilbon. After Croft finished a similar drive with a touchdown run, Nebraska was challenging again.
But Wilbon was stuffed on fourth-and-1 from the Minnesota 6-yard line by safety Duke McGee, and the Gophers pulled away from there.
CHANGE AT QUARTERBACK
Huskers sophomore quarterback Tanner Lee was 13-of-18 passing for 174 yards and a touchdown but was held out the second half. Riley said Lee was dealing with an “impact migraine” from a hit in the game.
Redshirt freshman Patrick O’Brien replaced him and was 12 of 18 for 137 yards passing.
Nebraska: The Huskers have two games left — at No. 16 Penn State and at home against No. 25 Iowa — and need wins in both to become bowl eligible. Nebraska hasn’t missed a bowl since Bill Callahan’s final season as coach in 2007, when it went 5-7. The Huskers need a win to avoid their first four-win season since 1960. The ineptitude has made coach Mike Riley the target after Bill Moos replaced Shawn Eichorst as the athletic director in October.
Minnesota: Bowl eligibility is looking more likely in Fleck’s first season. The Gophers’ performance against Nebraska is the type that can give them hope going to Northwestern next week before finishing at home against No. 6 Wisconsin. There’s an outside chance of Minnesota still earning a bowl bid with its five wins due to the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate in which the Gophers are tied for fourth. The APR standings are used if there aren’t enough six-win teams to fill the bowl requirements.
Nebraska travels to Penn State on Nov. 18.
Minnesota looks for its sixth win at Northwestern next week.
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