The Minnesota Golden Gophers are 5-0 for the first time since 2004 — not sure if we’ve mentioned that already — but you know what’s better than 5-0? 6-0. To reach that mark, the Gophers will need to best Scott Frost’s Nebraska Cornhuskers under the lights at TCF Bank Stadium on Saturday in a primetime matchup.
What more do you need to know? Oh, right. This is an opponent preview. You are here precisely to learn more. My bad! I’ll get on with it.
Are they any good this year?
2019 Record: 4-2 (2-1, 3rd B1G West)
I don’t think they’re bad, but I don’t know how good they are, either. They needed a pair of defensive touchdowns and a special teams touchdown in their season opener to keep a safe distance from a South Alabama squad that is now 1-5. A week later, the Cornhuskers coughed up a 17-0 halftime lead over Colorado, as the Buffaloes outscored Nebraska 31-14 in the second half to force overtime. The Huskers missed a field goal in overtime, opening the door for Colorado to claim the 34-31 victory with their own field goal.
Nebraska pounced on Northern Illinois a week later to the tune of 44-8. But against Illinois the following Saturday, the Cornhuskers found themselves trailing the Fighting Illini 21-7 in the second quarter. Nebraska trailed the entire game before storming back to take a 42-38 lead for good in the fourth quarter. College GameDay set up shop in Lincoln for a “showdown” with Ohio State that was over before halftime, as the Buckeyes barely broke a sweat en route to a 48-7 victory.
And last week’s 13-10 slap fight against Northwestern ended in a game-winning field goal for the Huskers. The last second field goal was set up by an interception made possible by one of the most blatant instances of pass interference that I’ve ever seen.
Can they score on offense?
Depends on the week. Against Ohio State and Northwestern, the Huskers managed all of 20 points combined. But against Colorado, Northern Illinois, and Illinois, Nebraska averaged 39 points per game. You could say they are inconsistent on offense.
The big question for Saturday will be whether Adrian Martinez is cleared to play. The sophomore quarterback had to be helped off the field after his injuring his knee on the final play of the third quarter against Northwestern and did not return to the game. Head coach Scott Frost dismissed the undisclosed injury it as “not too serious” in his postgame comments, but we likely won’t know for certain until pregame warm-ups on Saturday. Nebraska would certainly like to have him under center, even if he has been inconsistent so far this season.
Martinez has only completed 60 percent of his passes and struggled to get into any sort of rhythm against Ohio State and Northwestern, but he is dangerous as ever when he has room to run. I would argue though that the Huskers’ most electric player on offense is freshman wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson. At the start of Big Ten conference play, Nebraska started utilizing him in the running game and Robinson has racked up 370 all-purpose yards in their last three contests. He has provided a formidable one-two punch at wide receiver alongside J.D. Spielman, who leads the team with 21 receptions for 410 yards. I should also mention that Spielman was banged up against Northwestern as well, also suffering an unspecified knee injury.
On the ground, Nebraska has used a combination of the aforementioned Martinez and Robinson and a pair of running backs — sophomore Maurice Washington and junior Dedrick Mills — to get things going. They’ve relied heavily on Martinez, who leads the team in both rushing attempts (85) and rushing yards (341). I can’t say I’m surprised Martinez is banged up after 85 rushing attempts in six games. The Huskers’ rushing attack has also been operating behind a young and inexperienced offensive line plagued by poor blocking and high snaps, which is not a recipe for success when you operate predominantly out of the shotgun.
This offense reminds me a lot of Purdue when Elijah Sindelar was under center and with Rondale Moore healthy. They have elite athletes at wide receiver, a ho-hum running game, and an offensive line that is not nearly as good as they need them to be. The big difference: Adrian Martinez. He is going to try to extend plays with his legs, and the Gophers simply cannot afford to let him gash them for big chunks of yards. Minnesota will also need to tackle Robinson and Spielman, otherwise they are going to make big plays in the open field.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
I’d say the Husker defense has been about as inconsistent as their offense.
One week they’re giving up 38 points to Illinois. Two weeks later, 10 points to Northwestern.
Against the run, Nebraska has been one of the worst defenses in the country, allowing an average of 167 rushing yards per game. That number is certainly inflated after having allowed Ohio State to rack up more video game numbers with 368 rushing yards, but the Fighting Illini also gashed them for 221 yards and the Wildcats grinded out 157 yards on the ground. This comes as a bit of a surprise, considering the Huskers have a veteran defensive line led by senior nose tackle Darron Daniels and senior defensive end Carlos Davis.
But when you operate out of a base 3-4 defense, the onus is frequently on your linebackers to stop the run. But the Blackshirt linebackers, even with senior and leading tackler Mohammed Barry, have found themselves frequently overwhelmed and out of position. They seemed especially ill prepared for Northwestern’s zone read rushing attack. The Wildcat’s quarterback and running back both finished the game averaging at least four yards per carry.
They have not been particularly good at defending the pass either. Their best games have been against Illinois (78 yards passing) and Northwestern (136), but those two teams are ranked 104th and 121st in the country in passing offense, respectively. The Huskers weren’t able to keep their other four opponents below 212 passing yards, and even that total came courtesy of an Ohio State squad that recognized they didn’t even need to pass the ball.
Early in the season, Nebraska was being gashed by slant and crossing routes over the middle of the field. The Huskers sought to counter this by playing more nickel defense, with junior linebacker JoJo Domann shifting to nickelback. He has arguably been one of their best defenders this season — and no opposing offense has torched them through the air quite like Colorado did since that game. Domann’s impact will certainly be put to the test against a Minnesota passing attack that likes to attack the middle of the field. Joining him in his efforts to stop the Gophers will be senior cornerback Lamar Jackson and sophomore safety Cam Taylor-Britt. The latter has 18 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two pass break-ups, two interceptions, and four forced fumbles.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
This is almost certain to be a close game. Nebraska has only been blown out once this season and that was against Ohio State. Every other game has at least been closely contested. It will come down to Minnesota’s ability to pressure and contain Adrian Martinez, but there are also vulnerabilities on the Cornhuskers’ defense that the Gophers will need to take advantage of. I think the difference in the game will be Minnesota’s offense. They’ve been more consistent and have shown that they can get it done through the air or on the ground. Minnesota 30, Nebraska 28.