It’s the Battle for the Broken Chair! The Minnesota Golden Gophers head to Lincoln on Saturday for a primetime showdown with the Nebraska Cornhuskers. Both teams need to win to be a factor in the Big Ten West this late in the season, so I expect both teams to come out swinging (not literally, of course). To give us the lowdown on the Huskers, we turn to a crew of Corn Nation faithful for answers.
The Daily Gopher: Nebraska was 7-0 and ranked in the Top 10 before a pair of brutal road trips that saw the Cornhuskers lose a heartbreaker to Wisconsin and then run full steam into the buzzsaw known as Ohio State. The Huskers will certainly look to get their season back on track against Minnesota at home. But what weaknesses have these back-to-back losses exposed? And how can Nebraska address them in the final three games of the regular season?
Jon Johnston: The most obvious weakness is that Nebraska’s backup quarterback situation is not the best. Ryker Fyfe is more of a dropback passer, and this Husker team has been programmed to run more this season. Otherwise, I don’t know if there are real weaknesses “exposed.” Against Wisconsin, we turned the ball over too much, a flaw Nebraska has had for a while. Against Ohio State, Nebraska’s talent gap was apparent, although known. It didn’t help that players on both sides of the ball broke down on assignments everywhere.
Greg Mehochko: I think the biggest red flag comes from inconsistency. You can blame that on several factors, but that’s just a matter of making excuses. I would probably say that the talent drop off from Nebraska’s #1’s to their #2’s is pretty significant (with the exception of the running back corps, where the backs are used in a more situational basis). Ever since our offensive line has been banged up, our offense hasn’t been as good. I think this can be corrected in the future with better recruiting (which we’ve seen) and improved player development.
Andy Ketterson: I could answer with a lot of little things, but the main weakness it exposed is that we’re just not more than an average to good football team and now we’re a bit beat up by injuries – like most every other team in the country at this point, I’d imagine. We played our first seven games against teams that ranged from mediocre to downright awful and needed 70-80% of the game to put them all away. The limp early schedule and ballooned Top 10 ranking opened the gates for many to blindly think “we’re back baby!” — and the first game against a roster full of elite talent since Riley’s hiring was a horse kick of a wake-up call.
Now, what many falsely believed would be a trot to the finish suddenly looks like a dogfight to win out. The main thing to address will be the psychological effects of that shellacking. If they can’t come back mentally, this season could go south fast.
TDG: It was encouraging to see Tommy Armstrong back on the sidelines in the second half against Ohio State after being knocked unconscious and carted off the field earlier in the game. What is his status for Saturday? And how will it impact the Husker offense against Minnesota if senior Ryke Fyfe is under center?
Jon: I’d be amazed if he plays. From what we know of concussions — that getting a second one soon after having a first one can cause more serious damage — I’m sure they’re going to take every precaution. Fyfe isn’t a runner so much, so we’re going to be very limited in pure quarterback runs and draws.
Greg: I don’t expect Tommy to play. But I didn’t think Ben Roethlisberger would be back three weeks after surgery on his meniscus. I think they will treat Tommy with a ton of caution, and from a fan who was saying Saturday night that “the game doesn’t matter, just Tommy’s health,” I don’t want him to play this week. It has to be bigger than a game. His (and others’) health has to supercede the importance of a game, otherwise the words that are spoken/tweeted when a player is injured are just hollow words. Ryker is a different type of quarterback with what I can only describe as a God-awful sidearm throwing motion. And he’s not very mobile. A lot of plays that Tommy can make Ryker can’t. So the game plan has to be adjusted and we have to hope that the coaching staff will put Ryker and the offense in a position to succeed.
Andy: Tommy’s up in the air (latest article I saw said Riley is “hopeful”). If the concussion is that bad, then letting him back in a noisy stadium under bright lights was an interesting call, so I’m guessing it’s not but he is still unable to match his baseline in testing. If Ryker starts, look for a more traditional dropback playset. He’s a sneaky good runner if you leave him alone, but they won’t design many plays around that.
TDG: Nebraska ranks 50th in the country in rushing offense, averaging 190 rushing yards per game. But S&P+ is less than impressed, ranking the Huskers' rushing offense at 80th nationally. Can you talk about the Huskers' rushing game and how you expect the Nebraska offense to attack a Minnesota defense has been stout against the run (14th, according to S&P+) but susceptible to big plays in the passing game?
Greg: To their credit, Nebraska has a stable of quality running backs who can make plays. If Nebraska can make a big play or two in the passing game (or... I dunno, just not have deflected passes returned for pick-sixes), maybe they can force the Gophers to play a little more honestly instead of stacking the box.
Andy: They have remained committed to the run this year and, especially given that the line is struggling to protect the quarterback, expect to see plenty of runs between the guards as we have the last couple of weeks. Like, to the point of, “That DIVEDIVEDIVE is not what we meant when we said to run more last year!” The only back averaging over 5 YPC is given one or two dives a game and the line is still banged up. Minnesota’s D isn’t Wisconsin’s or the Buckeyes’, but I’d still be surprised if we would put more than 24 or 27 on the board.
TDG: The Husker defense has allowed an average of 230.5 rushing yards their last two games. Granted, Minnesota does not boast the same caliber of offensive line play as Wisconsin and Ohio State, but running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brook are the real deal. How will Nebraska look to slow the Gophers' rushing attack?
Jon: Stack the line and force [Mitch] Leidner to throw to win the game.
Greg: Tackling would help. I don’t know what happened Saturday — if OSU’s players are just that strong or if Nebraska forgot their technique. If we can tackle, I think we can get some stops. And if we can get some stops, we might be able to force a punt!
Andy: Nebraska is 85th in the country giving up 4.6 YPC and Minnesota has 28 rushing touchdowns vs. only 6 through the air. Against the bottom of the conference, the Gophers have averaged 37.3 points over the last 4 games, all wins. Expect the Huskers to load things up front a little, dare Leidner to throw and hope for the best. If their heads aren’t screwed back on right in a hurry, the Gophers will have a good day.
TDG: The Gopher passing game has been lackluster in conference play. Against Iowa and their defensive backfield led by Thorpe Award winner Desmond King, Minnesota's receiving corp struggled to find separation. Against Illinois and the NFL-caliber talent on their defensive line, the Gopher offensive line struggled to protect quarterback Mitch Leidner early in the game. What can the Gophers expect from the Huskers' pass rush and secondary?
Greg: The Husker pass rush hasn’t been very good. We aren’t getting a lot of pressure on the quarterbacks, but they force the quarterback to hold the ball because our pass coverage has improved a lot. This will need to be a game where the defense grits its teeth and shows that the embarrassment last year was the exception and not the rule.
Andy: The Gophers have about 2-1 run pass ratio, so, while I haven’t seen them play very much, I’m guessing that there’s some play action in there and not a great deal of straight up passing. The Husker defensive line gets the occasional push and are in the middle of the conference in sacks, but expect some blitz packages in those situations as the push is not consistent.
Jon: HAHAHAHA, you are fooled! Our defensive line is there to occupy blockers while our secondary blitzes and makes plays in the backfield!
TDG: Can you provide an update on the status of the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy? Has it been spotted in Lincoln since Mike Riley hoisted it in the locker room at TCF Bank Stadium last October? Will it be on the sidelines this Saturday? Inquiring minds must know.
Greg: I know it’s the only trophy Nebraska FANS care about — and I think that type of energy is infectious. I anticipate it will be at the game on Saturday and displayed prominently. I don’t know whether or not it has made any rounds around Lincoln, but I hope it has. It’s too pretty of a trophy to be put in a case and left alone for 12 months.
Andy: Shit, I forgot about that thing. [Nate] Gerry probably threw it against the wall while watching film the next week.
TDG: What is your prediction for Saturday? Will the Huskers snap the Gophers' four-game winning streak and retain the Broken Chair?
Greg: I’ll take the home team (because that’s what we do around here) to regain what they lost the last two weeks (momentum) and head into the home stretch of the regular season.
Andy: I don’t have a great feeling about Nebraska, but I do think we’re a step up from the Gophers last four opponents. If Minnesota can’t land an early knockout blow, let’s say the Huskers get their feet back under them and pull it out, but I have to make two picks:
- TommyHuskers 26, Gophers 23
- Gophers 33, RykerHuskers 27
Thanks again to Jon, Greg, and Andy for taking the time to answer our questions! Hopefully we’ll find out on Saturday if a broken chair is considered a carry-on.
Be sure to also check out our Q&A over at Corn Nation.