Last Saturday was a breath of fresh air for the Minnesota Golden Gophers and their fans. A week removed from a demoralizing shutout loss on the road against Northwestern, the Golden Gophers came out firing at halftime against Purdue after a sluggish first half, crushing the Boilermakers en route to a 41-13 blowout victory. Being able to sit back, relax, and watch the back-ups take the field in the fourth quarter was a welcome change of pace.
For the Nebraska Cornhuskers and their new head coach Mike Riley, last week was more of the same: Heartbreak.
Closing out games has been something of a challenge for the Huskers this season. Their two wins have come against South Alabama of the FCS and Southern Miss, both at home. Nebraska is 0-2 on the road thus far this season, with those losses coming against Miami and Illinois. The Huskers haven't even able to capitalize on their opponents' perceived deficiencies: BYU was without their starting quarterback, Al Golden is close to being kicked to the curb at Miami, Illinois fired their head coach days before the season opener, and Wisconsin was without their star running back. You can imagine the unrest this abysmal start to the season has created among their devoted fan base.
But underestimate Nebraska at your own risk. This is a team that is desperate for a win to salvage their season, and Minnesota can't afford to overlook that. There is talent on this squad, no doubt about it, and I suspect they'll be able to break out of this slump at some point this season. They've been demoralized, but there is life left in this team. The Gophers will need to stamp it out on Saturday to come out on top.
So what are the key matchups in this game? Let's take a look.
Gophers' offensive line vs Huskers' front seven. The Gophers' 326 rushing yards against Purdue -- and the apparent return of the effective ground-and-pound offense that has defined the Jerry Kill era up to this point -- a week ago could not have come at a better time for Minnesota, because the Huskers are one of the best in the nation at stopping the run. If the Gophers hope to move the ball on offense against Nebraska, they're going to need to be able to run the ball, because relying on the passing game has not worked against anyone but Ohio this season.
With that said, the Huskers are dead last in the nation in pass defense. You heard that right. Dead. Last. Through the first half of the season, the Nebraska secondary is allowing an average of 348.5 passing yards per game, the most in all of college football. While their defense has been exceptional against the run, opposing offenses are shredding them through the air. You'd think then that the key matchup would be between the Gophers' quarterback Mitch Leidner and the Huskers' defensive backs, but I'm not quite confident that the Gophers have the ability to win this game through the air. Jerry Kill has made it very clear that they're committed to running the football, and I don't expect him to deviate much from that plan after last week. I could be wrong on that, given how atrocious Nebraska is against the pass, but we'll have to wait and see what he and offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover have in store for Saturday.
For now, I'm putting the success of this offense on the shoulders of the running game. I don't expect running back Shannon Brooks to replicate his monster performance from a week ago, but I believe Minnesota will need their offensive line to open up holes for him and Rodney Smith in order to get this offense rolling. The offensive line had their best performance of the season last week, and freshman Tyler Moore provided a much-needed spark in his first start at center in place of the injured Brian Bobek. They'll need to build off that against Nebraska if Minnesota expects to win this game.
Gophers' linebackers vs Huskers' running backs. Through the first four games of the season, Nebraska fielded one of the more solid offenses in the nation. But in recent weeks, the Huskers' offense has sputtered against Big Ten competition. Quarterback Tommy Armstrong Jr. has been nowhere near efficient throwing the ball, and that has become a glaring issue for Nebraska in back-to-back Big Ten losses. Against Illinois and Wisconsin, Armstrong was a combined 21-for-59 with 234 total passing yards, 1 touchdown, and 1 interception. Jordan Westerkamp, their top receiver, has hauled in all of 3 receptions in the past two games. Briean Boddy-Calhoun is questionable for Saturday, but with Damarius Travis expected to return to a Gopher secondary that ranks 15th in the nation in passing defense and 9th in passing efficiency, I don't see Armstrong or Westerkamp faring much better than they have in recent weeks.
The Huskers have had better luck running the ball than passing, but aside from a 55-yard touchdown run from their fullback Andy Janovich against the Badgers, the running game has lacked the explosiveness it once possessed with Ameer Abdullah in the backfield. Terrell Newby is said to be their starting running back, but he hasn't even been the team's leading rusher the past two weeks. His back-up Devine Ozigbo was much more effective against Illinois, rushing for 70 yards on 7 carries with 1 touchdown, and the aforementioned Janovich outshined Newby a week ago against Wisconsin. No matter who is lined up in the backfield for the Huskers, the Gophers defense will look to re-create their stellar performance against Purdue, in which Cody Poock, De'Vondre Campbell, and crew effectively shut down the Boilermakers' running game.
Markell Jones, the freshman running back for Purdue who racked up 157 rushing yards on 22 carries with 2 touchdowns against Michigan State, was limited to 7 rushing yards on 6 carries against Minnesota. If the Gopher defense can have that same kind of success against Nebraska, look out. The Huskers will be in big trouble.
Are there other matchups that you think could be the difference in this game?