When Bryce Williams committed to the Gophers in June 2017, his mother Melissa Patton gave head coach P.J. Fleck one of those novelty buttons of Williams from his youth football days.
Fleck had it under the glass top on a coffee table in his office at the Larson Football Performance Center, and this week, he moved it across the room to his desktop. With Minnesota’s top two tailbacks, Trey Potts and Mo Ibrahim, out for the season, Fleck believed the fourth-year running back, who was often buried on the U’s depth chart in the last three seasons, would be counted on against Nebraska on Saturday.
“I knew he was going to have to have a big week for us,” Fleck said postgame.
Williams started for the first time since his true freshman year 2018 and rushed 17 times for 127 yards, breaking free for the game-sealing 56-yard touchdown run in a 30-23 win over the Cornhuskers at Huntington Bank Stadium.
The Gophers offense was near-perfect in the first half to take a 21-9 lead, but after Tanner Morgan set a program record with 16 consecutive completions he threw two straight interceptions and Minnesota had four straight punts in the second half. Outside of Williams’ massive game-breaking run, they managed only 93 yards on 29 plays after the break.
When Williams scored, Morgan said it “almost made me a little emotional, to be honest, because it’s really cool to see.” On the sideline, Morgan told Williams, “It hasn’t been the easiest for you, but you always do the right thing.”
In 2018, Williams rushed for 502 yards and four touchdowns as a true freshman, including two massive TDs in the U’s upset of Wisconsin in Madison. Then across 2019-20, The Sarasota, Fla., native had only 37 yards in four of the U’s 20 games. Given that early success and the dearth that followed, it would have been understood if he wanted to leave Minnesota.
But Williams didn’t transfer out. He bided his time behind Rodney Smith, Shannon Brooks, Mo Ibrahim and Trey Potts. And Williams dedication is in contrast to guard Curtis Dunlap, who has played less as the season has progressed and put his name in the portal this week.
“What I love about Bryce is he loves this team,” Morgan said. “He is very selfless and you can see that in the way he plays football, the way he interacts. That was something that I was so proud to see in him.”
Behind Williams’ will, Minnesota (4-2, 2-1 Big Ten) won its three straight against Nebraska (3-5, 1-4), which was a four-point favorite after three close losses to Top 10 teams.
While Nebraska had six explosive plays of 25-plus yards and the U managed only two of its own besides Williams’ run, Minnesota defense had two fourth-down stops to end two Huskers drives.
The Cornhuskers had scored a touchdown off Morgan’s second interception to make it 21-16 and were on the verge of taking the lead. But on third and goal from the 1 1/2-yard line, Tyler Nubin, Mariano Sori-Marin and Jordan Howden combined to keep Adrian Martinez out of the end zone. On fourth down from the 1/2-yard line, Nubin made another big stop as Jaquez Yant tripped on his rush.
Minnesota’s defense turned over the Huskers on downs in the fourth quarter as well. MJ Anderson, who is playing through an arm injury, had two pass break-ups, including one on third down. On fourth, little-used linebacker Donald Willis got a hand on Martinez’s throw.
Martinez has led the Huskers’ rushing attack, sometimes on the triple option or in scrambling, but he had eight carries for minus-17 yards, including two Gopher sacks. It was the lowest rushing total of his career.
In the fourth quarter, Esezi Otomewo grabbed Martinez and he threw it away to no one in particular. He was flagged for intentional grounding and since it happened in the end zone, it was a safety and Minnesota’s ball.
Williams, who wears No. 21, got free on the next series to make it a 30-16 lead with 2:16 left. Fleck was proven right: Williams would have a big day. Fleck wanted to give the ball most to an experienced player, instead of youngsters MarKeise Irving and Ky Thomas, who still contributed a combined 14 carries for 51 yards.
“You got a true freshman (and) freshman, who haven’t really had a lot on their plate,” Fleck said. “When it came down to as a head coach, not who I trusted, but in those moments, who has done it? 21.”