The Minnesota Golden Gophers (2-3) seem set to return to game action after a two-week hiatus, heading to Lincoln for the regular season finale against the Nebraska Cornhuskers (2-4) in the annual Battle for the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy.
How have the Cornhuskers fared so far this season?
It’s been a bit of a bizarre season for Nebraska. After getting blasted 52-17 by Ohio State in the season opener, the Huskers had their Week 2 game against Wisconsin cancelled. Returning to action against Northwestern, Nebraska blew a 13-7 halftime lead and was outscored 14-0 in the second half in a 21-13 loss. The Huskers bounced back in Week 4 with a 30-23 win over a Penn State squad that was winless at the time, but followed that with a humbling 41-23 loss to Illinois at home. Traveling to Iowa City in Week 6, Nebraska kept it close but came short against the Hawkeyes, 26-20. And now the Huskers are coming off perhaps their best game of the season, a 37-27 victory over Purdue that saw Nebraska build a 27-10 first half lead.
Can Nebraska score on offense?
The quarterback position has been something of an enigma for the Cornhuskers, who have alternated between junior Adrian Martinez and redshirt freshman Luke McCaffrey under center. And head coach Scott Frost’s offense relies heavily on the quarterback, both through the air and on the ground. The Huskers’ passing game has been anemic to say the least and has lacked any semblance of a vertical threat. But Martinez, in particular, has looked comfortable the last two weeks nickel-and-diming teams down the field. Against Iowa and Purdue, the junior signal caller was a combined 41-of-50 for 416 passing yards and one touchdown.
His favorite target has been sophomore wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, who is again the Huskers’ Swiss Army knife on offense. Robinson is their leading receiver with 39 receptions for 341 receiving yards, in addition to rushing for 167 yards on 31 carries. But to Martinez’s credit, he has been better about distributing the ball in their last two games. Nine different players recorded at least one reception against Iowa, and seven different players recorded at least one reception against Purdue. Keep an eye out for freshman wide receiver Zavier Betts and redshirt junior tight end Austin Allen, who is 6’8” and knows how to use every inch of it.
But if Nebraska is going to beat you, they are almost certainly going to do it on the ground. They live and die by quarterback draws and keepers, and both Martinez and McCaffrey have the speed and agility to make defenders miss. McCaffrey and Martinez are No. 1 and 2, respectively, in rushing attempts and rushing yards for the Huskers. I expect Martinez will get the start on Saturday, but McCaffrey is likely to see the field as well, perhaps even lined up next to Martinez. Nebraska will also mix in Robinson and senior running back Dedrick Mills.
Because the Huskers do not have an explosive offense, sustained drives will be critical to their success. Turnovers could be the key to putting the brakes on their rushing attack, especially with Minnesota’s woeful run defense. Nebraska has lost six fumbles this season, which is tied with Indiana and Penn State for the second-highest total in the Big Ten. McCaffrey has also thrown five interceptions this season, whereas Martinez has only thrown one.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
Since getting gashed by Illinois for 285 rushing yards, the Blackshirts have tightened up up front, limiting Iowa to 129 rushing yards and 2.9 yards per carry the following week. Their active linebacker corps, led by redshirt senior JoJo Domann, has been a big part of that turnaround. Redshirt senior Will Honas and sophomore Luke Reimer, starting in place of the injured Colin Miller, were key in bottling up the Hawkeyes’ formidable ground game.
On the defensive line, look out for defensive ends Ben Stille and Casey Rogers. Rogers was stout up front against Iowa’s vaunted offensive line, recording five tackles, including a sack. Stille stood tall against the Boilermakers, tallying five tackles, including 1.5 sacks.
I was able to watch the Huskers’ game against Purdue, and Nebraska was aggressive in the secondary against David Bell and Rondale Moore, trusting their cornerbacks in man coverage rather than trying to bracket either of them. The Boilermakers eventually gave up trying to run the ball altogether — finishing the game with 17 attempts for -2 rushing yards — and their dynamic duo inevitably broke loose for a combined 210 receiving yards, but I was impressed with how cornerbacks Cam Taylor-Britt and Dicaprio Bootle fared in coverage.
With Rashod Bateman no longer a factor, I expect the Huskers to implement a similar game plan against Minnesota. Look for them to stack the box to stop Mohamed Ibrahim and challenge Chris Autman-Bell and co. to create separation in man coverage.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
The Gophers haven’t played a football game since Nov. 20, and were not able to practice as a team up until Dec. 9, when the program was cleared to begin light workouts. A total of 23 student-athletes have tested positive for COVID since Nov. 19, and it is unclear how many of them, if any, will be available to play on Saturday due to the Big Ten’s 21-day rule. And because Fleck does not disclose the names of players who have tested positive, we have no way of knowing how many starters could be out. We do know that Minnesota will be without All-Big Ten wide receiver Rashod Bateman, who has opted out of the season and declared for the NFL Draft. I have no idea what to expect from this game, but I probably wouldn’t bet on Minnesota.