Ahead of Saturday’s matchup between the Minnesota Golden Gophers (5-3) and the Nebraska Cornhuskers (3-5), we were able to connect with Andy Ketterson, a staff writer for Corn Nation, and he was kind enough to field our questions.
The Daily Gopher: Not long after being promoted to interim head coach in September, Mickey Joseph fired defensive Erik Chinander, making it clear that he is approaching this season as an audition for the permanent gig. What have been your impressions of Joseph’s brief tenure at the helm so far, and do you feel he has a realistic shot of having the interim tag removed at the end of the year?
Andy Ketterson: I honestly don’t know?
I thought finishing 6-6 or better would almost lock it up for him, but going 3-1 against you guys, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Iowa is a longshot with Casey Thompson and he is in doubt. Without him, wow. The way Chubba Purdy looked, I don’t know if that can be fixed and Smothers is pretty one-dimensional. However, fans are still throwing their support behind him and do not blame Mick for the mess he inherited.
In the seven-plus weeks he’s been here, he appears to have improved organization, recruiting, accountability, culture, physicality, spirit, and enthusiasm beyond where it’s been the last seven-plus seasons. If he doesn’t get the head job, we probably lose him to Colorado or Arizona State unless he REALLY wants to stay at Nebraska as a coordinator.
There are several coaches, allegedly with high interest in the job I wouldn’t mind having at all, but I also have a feeling we may be passing on something special if we don’t give Mickey a shot. And I’m not married to having a coach with a Nebraska connection. I flip back and forth, speculate non-stop fully realizing I just have to wait till after Black Friday with the rest of us farging iceholes.
TDG: Scott Frost’s biggest hire of the offseason was offensive coordinator Mark Whipple, but there were questions coming into the season about the push-and-pull between Frost and Whipple. With Frost removed from the equation, what has the offense looked like under Whipple and how has quarterback Casey Thompson performed while operating it?
AK: It’s not strikingly different from when Frost was there, but ultimately it’s been hamstrung by an underwhelming offensive line, although they did open a few holes for Anthony Grant which was surprising.
However for the most part they’ve been unable to establish a ground game, so you see more of a pass heavier attack. Trey Palmer had been lights out but couldn’t get loose against the Illini although the coverage appeared a bit handsy. Grant and Palmer have been bright spots but if Thompson’s out, we may see a run-heavier attack simply because the arms behind him were horrific.
The line issues are tough since I really feel we’re right there with everyone but Ohio State at the skill positions and could be seeing some highlight reel stuff with even decent line play. Their lack of development is the biggest weakness.
TDG: Thompson exited the second quarter of the Huskers’ 26-9 loss to Illinois last week with a right hand injury and did not return. What is his status for Saturday, and what would the Nebraska offense look like without him?
AK: If Purdy can’t solve his yips in practice this week, I believe Logan Smothers will start and if that happens, expect a run-heavy attack which involves Smothers and around 20 or so passes, most of which will max out at seven or eight yards downfield with some swings and screens.
If Purdy gets the call and can throw like someone who’s held a football before unlike last week — and I do believe the ability is in there — then we’ll see an attack similar to Thompson. And Purdy does have the legs to make some plays with scrambles.
TDG: Truth be told, it’s tough to get a read on the Huskers’ defense. One week they give up 217 rushing yards, 391 passing yards, and 43 points to Purdue. The next, they put up a respectable performance against a balanced Illinois offense. How would you rate their performance up to this point in this season, and have they improved since Chinander was fired?
AK: Take out the Oklahoma game where it looked like the entire team was still shell-shocked by the firing, and the defense has been a completely different unit under interim coordinator Bill Busch. They are undersized on the line and have true freshmen now starting at inside linebacker and cornerback, but they play much more aggressively.
In addition, Busch actually changes up looks and sets, something which seemed absolutely foreign under Chins. Purdue was tough to watch, but they do have weapons, so not too much shame there. They do give up some big plays, but they’re not afraid to take a shot and are racking up some turnovers.
If Mickey does get the job, it may be tough not to put Busch in the DC role full-time.
TDG: How does the Nebraska defense match up against a Minnesota offense that is going to try and establish the run with Mohamed Ibrahim to ease up the pressure on an anemic passing game?
AK: OK, lemme go take a look at your offensive line…
We’re definitely going to be giving up some size to those guys, so if we start bringing backers in tighter and cheating any defensive backs up to help contain, then Tanner Morgan could very well have a first half much like last season when he picked us apart.
I felt like “holding” Chase Brown to 149 yards on 32 carries last week wasn’t awful and would be satisfied to do the same with Ibrahim without completely opening up the friendly skies to do so. If we can accomplish that and have a mostly healthy Thompson, the game could COULD be winnable.
TDG: What is your score prediction for the game?
AK: Definitely a two-parter — if Smothers or Purdy starts? (Or an 80% or less Thompson), I think that’s what the current Huskers +16 line is banking on and it’s probably correct. If we have to try and run on the Gopher defense, it could be a long day and the defense will tire due to disparity in possession this would likely cause. Under that scenario, I’ll go Minnesota 30, Huskers 13
If a fully healthy Thompson plays (or a suddenly effective Purdy - shaddup, I can dream), I believe the line is adjusted and there is a much better game given Nebraska has one of the better passing games Minnesota has seen — as well as opportunities for the defense to bang Thompson around some.
In addition, though, I also have add that much like Bert at Illinois, Coach PJ (or whoever is wearing his face now) has our freaking number. It’s downright irritating, but it’s also true, Under scenario #2, I’ll call for a closer game but Minnesota 24, Nebraska 19.