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Minnesota Football: Opponent Preview #7 Nebraska Cornhuskers

Can the Gophers make it three in a row over Nebraska?

Tommy Armstrong was running from the Gophers defense a lot last fall.
Tommy Armstrong was running from the Gophers defense a lot last fall.
Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

In the next two weeks as we move closer to the start of the 2015 Gopher Football season, we here at The Daily Gopher will give a quick preview of the Gophers opponents. We have finally reached the first home Big Ten game of our season in Mid-October, and its a doozy.  Next up for the Gophers are the Nebraska Cornhuskers.

Name: Nebraska Cornhuskers
Location: Lincoln, Nebraska
Conference: Big Ten (West Division)
Notable Alumni: Warren Buffett, Chuck Hagel, Roger Craig, Rulon Gardner, Willa Cather, Johnny Carson,
Bill Connelly Preview Link: Here!

Last Season:

Last season for the huskers was one of very mixed emotions.  Nebraska started the season 5-0 before a tight loss in East Lansing against the Spartans. They won three more games to get to 8-1 before a trip to Madison.  #Wisconsinscoresagain  Oh..and Melvin Gordon broke the single-game NCAA rushing record in just over 3 quarters.  Yeah.  After that emotional trainwreck, the Cornhuskers came home to host the Gophers.  The game was a back and forth affair, but Minnesota seemed to take control in the second half.  Then Nebraska looked like they were about to take the lead at the end of the fourth quarter....when Briean Boddy-Calhoun decided to save the Gophers season.  Cue this:

Yeah...that worked. The Huskers would try and save face by barely beating Iowa the next weekend, but Nebraska fans and administration had seen enough and FauxPelini....I mean Bo Pelini was handed his walking papers.

Key Losses:

Goodbye Bo Pelini.  Many Nebraska fans were ready for the change and are excited for Mike Riley, but it will be interesting to see if this is a Frank Solich/Bill Callahan situation all over again.

Right behind Pelini, and frankly most Nebraska fans would probably say this is the bigger loss is Ameer Abdullah.  As Abdullah is impressing in the preseason with the Detroit Lions, his 1618 yards and 19 touchdowns even while dealing with nagging injuries will be tough to recoup. Nebraska has some backs in reserve, but none have the skills Abdullah has.  At receiver, Nebraska will miss Kenny Bell.  Bell was a bit more of a deep threat, and the new Riley offense is based more on short routes, so he may not be a huge loss, but replacing 47 catches at 790 yards is never easy.  Bigger than Bell will be the loss of 3/5th of the starting o-line. Gone is Jake Cotton, Mike Moudy and Mark Pelini and their 52 career starts.  Their replacements have only 4 career starts.  Gulp.

Defensively, the Huskers say goodbye to Randy Gregory.  While oft injured last season, Gregory still racked up seven sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss.  The Huskers will miss their top two linebackers from 2014 as well. Zaire Anderson and Trevor Roach leave after combining for 123 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss.  In the secondary, two starters from 2014 depart in safety Corey Cooper and corner Josh Mitchell. Mitchell had 13 PBUs a year ago, so finding that on the ball corner will be key.

Key Returners:

Nebraska returns Tommy Armstrong Jr. at the quarterback position, and depending on what Nebraska fan you ask, some are thrilled, and some, not so much.  Armstrong proved himself a typical dual-threat quarterback last year,completing 53 percent of his passes while being the Huskers 2nd leading rusher with over 800 yards (not including sacks) on the ground.Armstrong Jr. threw for 22 TDs, but also 12 interceptions, many at very inopportune times.  He's the starter for sure, and doesn't really look like he will be pushed too much from behind.  Imani Cross the big pushing back returns for Nebraska and will need to take over the majority of the load from Abdullah. However, Terrell Newby will also see a lot of carries.  The Huskers do return a few good receiving threats for Armstrong, most notably Jordan Westerkamp. He had 44 catches and 747 yards a year ago just behind Bell for the team lead.  Also expected to play a much larger role in the receiving game then he did a year ago is De'Mornay Pierson-El.  Pierson-El is one of the most dangerous special teams threats in the Big Ten, but needed to improve his receiving skills to really make an impact.  Alex Lewis will anchor the o-line at left tackle with 13 career starts.

Defensively, Nebraska returns the rest of the starting D-line besides Gregory.  Maliek Collins is the star here at tackle where he had 4.5 sacks and a team leading 10.5 TFL in 2014.  The Huskers have great depth here as well with nine junior or seniors in the rotation.  Linebacker will be a different story, where Nebraska will need to find some fresh blood.  The only major returner is Michael Rose-Ivy who missed the 2014 season with injury, but had a good 2013 season.  The secondary is led by the return of Nate Gerry who led the Huskers with five interceptions in 2014.  Sam Foltz returns at punter, and is one of the best ones in the Big Ten not named Mortell.  Drew Brown was good at kicker as well, perfect on PATs, and 12-14 from within 40 yards...but a dreadful 2-7 outside of 40.

Question Marks??

One of the major questions is which Tommy Armstrong will show up.  He looked great early in the year, and then struggled down the stretch against WI, MN and IA.  He will have some help in the running game, but he may miss Ameer Abdullah even more than some may think.

The next question will be how the Huskers will adjust the the new Mike Riley system.  He is known for short passing and moving the ball that way rather than the run under a Pelini system. How will Armstrong adjust, and how will the defense differ from the Pelini style.

Thirdly, how will Nebraska deal with the injury to Pierson-El. With two tough non-conference games in BYU and at Miami in the first three weeks, not having your most explosive player will hurt.  Can they overcome that loss to have a good non-conference system, and will he be back for two big games in a row against Wisconsin on October 10th and the Gophers the week after.  .

What Does It All Mean For Minnesota?

The Gophers will have TCF rocking for this one.  This may be the first year in a very long time that many may think the Gophers actually have an edge over the Huskers.  Now they just have to execute.  In previous years the Gophers had a lot of success using Maxx Williams to open up the middle of the field, and then allow either Phillip Nelson to find open receivers or have  Mitch Leidner to find holes and run for lots of yards.  Its going to have to be the latter again this fall, and with the holes in the linebacker corps for Nebraska, if Mitch can get some key blocks he could have a big day on the ground.  As usual, the Gopher running game will need to establish themselves as a threat ,especially to try and run out the game late.

On defensively, the Gophers will need to contain Armstrong.  He ran over Minnesota a bit in Lincoln last fall, but the Gophers did a decent job of shutting down the passing game save a few big plays.  The Gopher secondary will need to come to play again, especially if Pierson-El is back.  We all know what BBC did last year against him.  If Minnesota can bottle up the Husker rushing attack and make Armstrong win the game on his own, I think the Gophers will be in good shape.

Final Analysis:

I was thisclose to picking Nebraska in this game...just because I think they are due to get over the hump against the Gophers.  Then this came across the twitter wire yesterday afternoon.

Oof. Eight weeks put him back either for Wisconsin the week before, or for the Gophers. Even if he comes back earlier, I'm guessing he will need to shake off some rust and won't be the shifty threat we have previously seen.  As long as Minnesota doesn't turn the ball over, and with a Nebraska linebacker corps in flux, I think the Gophers can continue to run the ball well against the Huskers especially via Leidner, and they will sneak out another close one making it three in a row over the Big Red. I see 27-20 Gophers as the final.