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Minnesota Football: RoWINg to Nebraska - Opponent Preview

The Matt Rhule era begins in Minneapolis

Nebraska Spring Football Game Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

We’re back!

The Minnesota Golden Gophers will open the 2023 season with a visit from the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Thursday, Aug. 31, at 7 p.m. at Huntington Bank Stadium. It will be the inaugural game of the Matt Rhule era at Nebraska, meaning there will no doubt be a healthy amount of red among the Gopher fans participating in Thursday night’s “Gold Out.”

Can Nebraska score on offense?

Under Rhule and new offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield, expect Nebraska to resemble a more traditional Big Ten offense. In other words, they want to be able to win in the trenches and run the football. Whether they will be able to win in the trenches on offense this season is an open question, considering offensive line was a liability throughout Scott Frost’s tenure in Lincoln.

If the Cornhuskers are able to open up running lanes, there is a trio of running backs you can expect to see bursting through them. Their most proven option is Anthony Grant, who rushed for 915 yards and six touchdowns a season ago. He is a very physical runner and the type of running back you want in a Big Ten offense. But atop the depth chart is redshirt sophomore Gabe Ervin Jr., followed by redshirt junior Rahmir Johnson. Neither recorded more than 20 carries last season, but Ervin bears some physical similarities to Grant and Johnson is more of a change-of-pace back.

Under center is a new face: Georgia Tech transfer quarterback Jeff Sims. Sims has the arm talent to sling it, but his accuracy and decision-making are questionable. In three seasons with the Yellow Jackets, he completed less than 60 percent of his passes and threw 30 touchdowns to 23 interceptions. What makes Sims dangerous is his ability to escape the pocket and run the ball. He piled up 1,166 rushing yards on 277 carries at Georgia Tech.

Sims’ skillset will likely put a lot of pressure on the Gophers’ defensive line. Minnesota defensive coordinator Joe Rossi has never been one to dial up blitzes and I wouldn’t expect that to change against Nebraska. Because if your blitzers don’t get home, that likely opens up a lane for Sims to run loose. So it will be on the defensive line to keep him contained and never get too far up field.

As for whom Sims will be throwing the ball to, the Cornhuskers have something of a mixed bag at wide receiver. Marcus Washington is the veteran, having hauled in 31 receptions for 471 yards last season, but he has been banged up this fall. Former New Mexico State transfer Isaiah Garcia-Castaneda did not make much of an impact last year, though he is expected to play a larger role this year. Virginia transfer Billy Kemp IV will feature in the slot for Nebraska. His most productive season with the Cavaliers came in 2021, when he hauled in 74 receptions for 725 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Zavier Betts had promise but left the program during fall camp.

Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score

The big news on the defensive side of the ball for the Cornhuskers is that they will operating out of a base 3-3-5 formation under new defensive coordinator Tony White. This will represent a formidable Week 1 test for a Minnesota offensive line that will feature three new starters. Communication up front is going to be critical, because the 3-3-5 is a complex defense that can disguise its fronts and attack offenses in a variety of different ways from one snap to the next.

Nash Hutmacher and Ty Robinson are the names to remember up front. Robinson started every game as a sophomore and totaled 24 tackles, four tackles for loss, and two sacks. Hutmacher played in every game but only made two starts, finishing the year with 15 tackles.

At linebacker, fifth-year senior Luke Reimer is the leader of the defense. He enters his third year as a starter on the Cornhusker defense and finished last season with 86 total tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, one sack, six pass break-ups, and one interception. On one side of him will be Nick Henrich, a team captain who suffered a season-ending injury last year. The other side of Reimer will see a combination of Georgia transfer M.J. Sherman and Florida transfer Chief Borders, both of whom will be deployed in creative ways as the “Jack” linebacker.

That brings us to the secondary. Quinton Newsome is the leader and could emerge as one of the top cornerbacks in the Big Ten if he can realize his potential as a senior this season. Lining up opposite Newsome will be cornerback Malcolm Hartzog, who held his own as a freshman last year. Nebraska has two new faces at safety in the form of former JUCO transfer DeShon Singleton and Northern Iowa transfer Omar Brown. The fifth cog in the secondary is the “Rover” position occupied by Isaac Gifford, a returning starter from a season ago.

But who will score more points on Saturday?

I will be surprised if this is not a close game, especially in the first half. Season openers are always difficult to prepare for, but even moreso against a program with a new coaching staff. It’s not like Nebraska is devoid of talent, either. Rhule is a good coach, though he has historically struggled in his first year at a new program. But I do think the Gophers will settle in after a rocky start and escape with a victory against a Cornhuskers team that needs to learn how to win again after six straight sub-.500 seasons. Minnesota 26, Nebraska 20.