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U’s defensive backs dominate in opening win vs. Nebraska

Alex Kormann, Star Tribune/Star Tribune/TNS

Gophers safety Tyler Nubin's two-interception performance spearheaded Thursday's 13-10 comeback victory against Nebraska — and it could go down as one of the best games of his stellar career.

The senior All-America candidate put on a show in front of NFL scouts, but Nubin wasn't alone in the defensive secondary's dominance Thursday. He combined with cornerbacks Justin Walley and Tre'Von Jones to force four turnovers.

"We got dogs on this defense," Nubin said. "We got guys who are hungry and ready to play."

Nubin's second interception of the game set up the game-winning drive capped by a 47-yard Dragan Kesich field goal as time expired. But the Gophers shifted the momentum earlier in the fourth quarter with the third turnover created by their defensive backs.

Walley forced a fumble on Nebraska running back Anthony Grant with just under five minutes to play. The Gophers' only touchdown then came on Daniel Jackson's spectacular catch to finish the ensuing drive, tying the score 10-10.

Earlier in the second half, Walley left the game with a leg cramp. Freshman Tariq Watson had to take over for a few possessions. Walley returned to punch the ball out when his team needed it the most. And the fumble was recovered by redshirt freshman defensive back Aidan Gousby, who made his Gophers debut on defense Thursday when starter Darius Green was sidelined, also with leg cramps.

"I'm feeling good now," Walley said. "I cramped up a little bit, but I had to check back [in] and respond."

Jones, an Elon transfer, led the Gophers with nine tackles and intercepted a pass in the end zone to keep the Cornhuskers from taking the lead going into halftime.

"It was a big play," Nubin said. "He really helped me out, too, because I was kind of out-leveraged a bit. So, I thank him for that one. He's a ballplayer."

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The only touchdown given up to Nebraska came on an initially botched trick play when quarterback Jeff Sims recovered a fumble after trying to catch a backwards pass from his tailback. The crazy sequence left a receiver wide open in the end zone on Sims' 34-yard TD pass to begin the third quarter.

"It was really odd," Walley said. "We got to be better, but we learned from it. We responded — and that was the biggest message on the sideline just responding from it and getting better. And the next couple of drives, we got stops."

Gophers coach P.J. Fleck challenged his team in huddles throughout the game Thursday that the best players had to make the plays to pull off the first victory. The secondary responded from start to finish.

"Our defense plays how our defense plays," Fleck said. "For seven years, our defense plays really hard. I'm really proud of them as a whole."

Last season, the Gophers led the Big Ten with fewest passing touchdowns allowed with only eight in 13 games. They also ranked fifth in the league in interceptions (14) and pass defensive efficiency (109.2).

Defensive coordinator Joe Rossi lost cornerback Terell Smith and safety Jordan Howden, who were both picked in the NFL draft this summer. Nubin could've joined them in the league, but he returned to the Gophers to experience moments like Thursday night.

"I'm not going to lie, that [ranks] pretty high up there," Nubin said. "The amount of adversity we had to overcome. Having guys go down. To be able to overcome it and finish it that way in front of our home crowd. Couldn't ask for anything better."