In the weeks leading up to the Minnesota Golden Gophers’ season opener on Thursday, Aug. 29, we are previewing each of the Gophers’ Big Ten West opponents by subjecting contributors from their respective SB Nation sites to an intense Q&A session.
Today, we are joined by the trifecta of site managers from Corn Nation — Jon Johnston, Jill Heemstra (a.k.a. ranchbabe), and Husker Mike — to talk about the national media darling Nebraska Cornhuskers. Thanks, Jon, Jill, and Mike!
Every team in the Big Ten West has question marks. But what are the areas of your team that have periods for punctuation or even exclamation points?
Jon Johnston: Quarterback. Adrian Martinez played exceptionally well after he got the offense down last season. This year I will be surprised if he’s not the best in the Big Ten by the end of the year.
Jill Heemstra: One exclamation point would be special teams! They were horribad to start the year and probably cost Nebraska at least one game. This was among the plays we put on the field:
By the end of the season, they had upgraded to being okay (Special teams. Instead of special teams!). The punter/kickoff specialist in the Tweet above had been benched, the shaky field goal kicker found his mojo and actually was the reason Nebraska won vs Michigan State (a 9-6 field goal fest in the snow). I’m hopeful we don’t notice them this year. At all.
Husker Mike: I think linebacker has the potential to be an exclamation point. Mohammed Barry has emerged as a team leader, and he should be joined by Will Honas, a junior college transfer who was about to unseat a three-year starter before tearing an ACL. If he’s healthy, this is going to be a solid group. On the outside, JoJo Domann came on strong late last season to become a playmaker.
Okay, now I have to ask about the question marks. What are they?
JH: Will Husker players quit smoking pot in their dorm rooms? We’ve had four players cited for marijuana this summer, with three of them in their dorm.
In all seriousness, linebacker depth seems to be a big question mark for me. Will there be enough bodies to man that position after the inevitable injuries occur as the season wears on? Also, who will be carrying the ball? Last year’s freshman revelation, Maurice Washington, is in legal hot water and his status is unknown until his court case is concluded. Everyone else expected to be a contributor in that room is a newcomer with juco transfer Dedrick Mills being seen as the workhorse should Washington be unavailable (and Mills will likely be needed even if the undersized Washington is available).
Husker Mike: Hahaha… My strength is Jill’s question mark. My question mark is the receiver corps. For a coaching staff that preferred a pro-style passer, the previous staff pretty much left the cupboard bare in terms of productive receivers. Of all of the receivers they recruited, only J.D. Spielman has been a consistent contributor. Lots of freshmen will have opportunities to contribute immediately, most notably Wan-dale Robinson.
Is there a non-conference or early season game that will serve as a barometer for the rest of your season?
JH: I think Husker fans have Colorado circled as a payback game. In the contest at Memorial Stadium last season, our freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez was injured in what appeared (to Husker fans) as a deliberate knee-twist in a pile after a tackle. The Buffs have a new head coach but still have Laviska Shenault likely to do crazy good stuff. The Huskers’ performance vs the Buffaloes will go a long way to determining how everyone feels when the Buckeyes come to Lincoln two weeks later. 2018 Nebraska gave Ohio State all they wanted in Columbus despite being a dysfunctional hot mess and Husker fans expect a much more confident and functional team while tOSU will be trying to establish the Ryan Day era with a rebuilt offense. No one is discounting the amount of talent in Columbus, just recognizing that getting a team breaking in a lot of new starters and new head coach early in the season will hopefully be a mark in Nebraska’s favor.
Husker Mike: It’ll have to be Ohio State. Nebraska may not win the game, but if Nebraska is going to contend in the West, this game has to be competitive. They pushed the Buckeyes last year on the road; they’ll have to do the same this year at home.
4. What game do you have circled on your calendar? It can be your most anticipated matchup or perhaps Nebraska’s toughest test (or both).
JJ: Minnesota. The Gophers have experienced quarterbacks, possibly the best receiver in the conference in Tyler Johnson and running backs coming out of the woodwork. The defense worked itself out after Fleck fired his defensive coordinator. Most people perceive Fleck as a gimmicky coach — this season will show a lot about the program.
JH: I agree with Jon. Minnesota is being overlooked and should be getting a lot more respect than they are in the preseason. They are going to be a tough matchup. I will go in a different direction as far as my most anticipated matchup — repeating Colorado and Ohio State as early season barometers as to whether Husker fans should get excited about this team or settle in for another bumpy ride.
Husker Mike: I think it has to be Iowa at this point. There’s a huge debate around here whether Iowa is Nebraska’s rival or not. I say it’s not, because Nebraska fans aren’t merely satisfied with beating Iowa. Nebraska went 3-1 against the Hawkeyes their first four years in the Big Ten, but because they struggled badly against Wisconsin, a coaching change was needed. Well, since that firing, Iowa has won four straight. First step to getting Nebraska back is to stop that bleeding so that the focus can return to defeating the Wisconsins, Michigans, and Ohio States of the Big Ten.
If you had to pinpoint a trap game on the schedule, what would it be?
JJ: There damned well better not be any “trap game” when you’ve been 4-8 the past two seasons!!!!!
JH: What Jon said.
Husker Mike: Minnesota. Road game following back-to-back games against the Big Ten’s reigning East and West champions.
Make the case for why the Cornhuskers will win the West.
JJ: Scott Frost!!!! Woooooooooo!
JH: Adrian Martinez!!
Husker Mike: If not Nebraska, who? Yes, they started 0-6, but they finished 4-2, and those two losses were by a total of 8 points on the road to Ohio State and Iowa.
Okay, now make the case for why the Cornhuskers won’t win the West.
JJ: What have we done the last 10-15-20 years that have shown we’re worthy of such a prediction? The defense is still missing key components and couldn’t get off the field last season. We need a proven running back. We might have some playmakers at receiver, but right now everything is about “potential”. On top of that, I DON’T WANT TO GET HURT AGAIN SETTING MY EXPECTATIONS THAT HIGH.
JH: What Jon said. There are more reasons why Nebraska won’t win the West than they will.
Husker Mike: Uncertainty at running back and receiver. Adrian Martinez can’t carry the offense by himself.
I can’t let you go without an actual prediction on the record. Who wins the West?
JJ: Nebraska. This is going to be posted on a Minnesota site. Nobody said I had to be rational about what I’m saying, given the contradiction between the last question and this. It will be Nebraska because why the hell not.
JH: Any team not named Illinois. I also want to poo poo Northwestern’s chances because they squeaked through a division that no one seemed to want to win last year, but one should never underestimate nerds. Honestly though, I think it comes down to the Quadrangle of MinneWiscIoBraska. Nebraska’s schedule appears favorable right now and I like them better than the other three teams. So I pick them.
But I reserve the right to change my mind halfway through the season.
Husker Mike: Nebraska. I can also make a case for just about everybody not named Illinois to win the West. Conversely, I can make a case for everybody to finish last as well. But Nebraska gets Northwestern, Wisconsin, and Iowa at home and finished last season strong. Homer pick? Yeah, but when Phil Steele agrees, it’s not completely irrational either.