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Minnesota Football: RoWINg to Nebraska - Opponent Preview

The Huskers have a big question mark at quarterback heading into Saturday

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 29 Illinois at Nebraska Photo by Steve Nurenberg/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Minnesota Golden Gophers (5-3) will look to retain the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy for the fourth straight year when they travel to Lincoln to face the Nebraska Cornhuskers (3-5).

Pour one out for Scott Frost.

Can Nebraska score on offense?

Disaster struck in the second quarter of the Huskers’ 26-9 loss to the Fighting Illini on Saturday. Starting quarterback Casey Thompson took a hit to his right elbow and lost feeling in his right hand, sidelining him for the rest of the game. After the game, interim head coach Mickey Joseph said he is “day-to-day.” Once Thompson was knocked out the game, Illinois smelled blood and feasted. Back-up signal callers Logan Smothers and Chubba Purdy combined to go 4-of-9 for 16 passing yards, and the Nebraska offense recorded only one first down the rest of the game.

If Thompson is out, the Huskers have a quarterback problem. Thompson has been mistake-prone, throwing seven interceptions in his last four games, but he is also averaging 252.9 passing yards per game and has thrown for at least one touchdown in every game this season. Smothers and Purdy looked woefully unprepared in his absence. Smothers is the better athlete and gives Nebraska the ability to run the option, whereas Purdy is the better passer. It’s unclear who would get the starting nod if Thompson is not cleared to play against Minnesota.

No matter who is under center, the Gophers’ secondary will need to have eyes on Trey Palmer at all times. The former LSU wide receiver is the Huskers’ chief deep threat, able to stretch the defense and force them to respect the vertical passing game. Palmer leads the team in receptions (48), receiving yards (782), and five touchdowns. He is one of the best receivers in the Big Ten, if not the country. Nebraska will likely try to spread the ball around to a variety of wide receivers and tight ends, but expect Palmer to get the lion’s share of the targets.

The offensive player the Huskers are likely to lean on most in the absence of Thompson is running back Anthony Grant. He has rushed for 743 yards on 156 carries this season, though he has only found paydirt once in their last five games. Joseph has said in recent weeks that he would like to get Grant more touches and Saturday may present the perfect opportunity.

Poor offensive line play, a hallmark of Scott Frost’s tenure, has continued even in his absence.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

One week after being promoted to interim head coach, Mickey Joseph made the move to fire defensive coordinator Erik Chinander. The Blackshirts had an abysmal start to the season, culminating in back-to-back losses to Georgia Southern and Oklahoma that saw the Huskers’ defense give up a combined 94 points. Since special teams coach Bill Busch was promoted to interim defensive coordinator, the results have been something of a mixed bag.

The Nebraska defense turned in respectable performances in back-to-back wins over Indiana and Rutgers, but a trip to West Lafayette left them battered and bloodied. The Boilermakers laid waste to the Huskers, torching them for 391 passing yards and gashing them for 217 rushing yards.

If Minnesota does their homework, they should take notice of the blueprint laid out by Illinois last week. The Fighting Illini favored efficiency over explosiveness in the passing game, completing 20-of-22 passes but only averaging eight yards per completion. When Illinois was able to spring a chunk play in the passing game, it was because the ground game had lulled the Nebraska defense to sleep. The Illini ran 48 times for 188 rushing yards, using the Run-Pass Option (RPO) and play-action bootlegs to catch the defense off balance.

It all starts up front. Nebraska has been weak in the trenches on both sides of the ball all season long. If the Gophers can consistently win at the line of scrimmage and create enough running lanes for Mohamed Ibrahim to get the ground game going, the outcome will likely favor Minnesota.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

The Gophers have won three straight over the Huskers and are 6-3 against Nebraska in their last nine contests. Only two of those wins have come in Lincoln and both were one-score games. The atmosphere at Memorial Stadium is always tough, regardless of the quality of the Huskers team taking the field. If Thompson is able to play, I think this game is a coin flip. With his status uncertain, I’ll give the edge to the Gophers, even though I’m wary of a game where their offensive line really needs to set the tone up front. Minnesota 23, Nebraska 16.