With the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy on the line, the Minnesota Golden Gophers (3-2) host the Nebraska Cornhuskers (3-4) on Saturday at 11 a.m. at Huntington Bank Stadium.
Can Nebraska score on offense?
Nebraska’s offense is the antithesis of Minnesota’s offense. It relies on creative play-calling that keeps opposing defenses on their heels through misdirection and by breaking tendencies, and much of their success rests on the shoulders of their quarterback. Everything goes through Adrian Martinez, for better and for worse. He is their leading passer — 118-of-178 (66.3%) for 1,754 passing yards and nine touchdowns — and their leading rusher — 88 rushing attempts for 450 yards and 10 touchdowns. Martinez’s Achilles’ heel has been turnovers in critical situations, having lost three fumbles and thrown three interceptions through the first six games of the season.
Although Martinez leads the team in the rushing yards, the Huskers have a committee of running backs at their disposal to help carry the load. The two hottest hands of late seem to be freshmen Rahmir Johnson and Jaquez Yant. Johnson is a speed back who flashed his potential as a dynamic playmaker against Michigan, rushing for 67 yards on 17 carries and hauling in six receptions for 105 receiving yards and one touchdown. Yant is a bigger back at 6’2” and 225 lbs., but he also burst through the Northwestern defense for a 64-yard touchdown.
One of the biggest issues of the Scott Frost era has been the Nebraska offensive line. But the Huskers retooled their offensive line ahead of the Northwestern game, inserting freshman Teddy Prochazka at left tackle and sophomore Nouredin Nouili at left guard. The early results have been encouraging to say the least, as Nebraska has only surrendered one sack since the change and paved the way for 427 rushing yards in a romp against Northwestern. Though Prochazka suffered what looked to be a very serious knee injury in the Huskers’ loss to Michigan.
Through the air, Martinez’s favorite target is wide receiver Samori Toure. The Montana transfer leads the Huskers with 26 receptions for 520 receiving yards and three touchdowns. When Nebraska wants to stretch the field, they call Toure’s number, especially in the play-action passing game. Martinez also has a massive target in 6’8” tight end Austin Allen, who is second on the team in receptions (19) and receiving yards (222). But the Huskers do like to spread it around, as seven different players have at least one touchdown reception this season.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
Nebraska is solid defensively, ranking 56th nationally in rushing defense (133.9 rushing yards allowed per game), 43rd in pass defense (207.7 passing yards allowed per game), and 22nd in scoring defense (17.8 points allowed per game). If you want to beat them, you have to be able to run the football. Well, unless you’re Michigan State. The Huskers managed to bottle up Kenneth Walker III, the nation’s leading rusher, and limit him to 61 rushing yards and a 3.2 yards-per-carry average, yet ended up losing to the Spartans in overtime.
But in Nebraska’s loss to Michigan last week, Wolverine running backs Hassan Haskins and Blake Corum had ample running room, rushing for a combined 212 yards and averaging 6.2 yards per carry together. The Huskers operate out of a base 3-4 defense, so the pressure is on the linebackers to stifle opposing rushing attacks, and missed tackles have been an issue of late. Linebackers Nick Henrich and Luke Reimer are neck-and-neck on the team in terms of total tackles, but I would argue the captain of the defense is JoJo Domann.
In the secondary, Nebraska has a pair of veterans at safety — Deontai Williams, who leads the team with three interceptions, and Marquel Dismuke — and one of the better cornerbacks in the league in junior Cam Taylor-Britt. Taylor-Britt had a standout game against Michigan, notching three pass break-ups and eleven tackles. The Gophers’ wide receivers, even at full strength, are going to have to be better at creating separation than they have so far this season — and offensive coordinator Mike Sanford Jr. needs to get more creative with his passing concepts — if Minnesota is going to loosen up the Huskers’ defensive front.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
To be honest with you, I don’t have a ton of confidence in Minnesota at the moment. The Gophers’ struggles in the passing game so far this season have been well documented, and the loss of Trey Potts means that Minnesota’s run-first, run-second, and pass-third offense is going to be asking a lot of true freshman Mar’Keise “Bucky” Irving. Both defenses are good, but I think it’s obvious that Nebraska’s offense presents more of a challenge than their counterpart on the opposite sideline. I’m sorry, but I think the Broken Chair returns to Lincoln. Nebraska 23, Minnesota 16.