Fearless prediction: Nebraska will put up bushels of points against Minnesota. Can the Gophers keep pace?
The thousands of Nebraska faithful who trekked up Interstate 35 on the second weekend of October 2019 won’t soon forget the trip.
Neither will Mohamed Ibrahim.
With a cold, wet snow falling on the Twin Cities, Minnesota mashed and mauled the Huskers in what until this year looked like one of coach Scott Frost’s most embarrassing defeats. Ibrahim — recently named a Doak Walker Award semifinalist — was one of three Gophers backs to rush for at least 84 yards on the night, and he accounted for 3 touchdowns as Minnesota vaulted toward Big Ten West supremacy. The Huskers had all but given up by game’s end and went on to lose 4 of their final 5 games.
Jump ahead a year that seems like more like five years, and what’s scheduled for 11 a.m. CT Saturday is more of a survival story than anything else. Both these teams have seen their fair share of agony in 2020, from Minnesota’s COVID-19 outbreak to Nebraska’s continued penchant for finding ways to lose late in games.
And yet both those storylines were off the table this week as the Gophers returned to practice following two weeks off and the Huskers spoke of lessons learned from a stunning 41-23 loss to Illinois on Nov. 21. Back-to-back wins have been rare under Frost, but with more than 20 Minnesota players expected out due to the coronavirus, Nebraska is a 10.5-point favorite.
“Well, you’ve gotta learn from a win and learn from a loss,” said Frost, whose team held on for a 30-23 victory against Penn State before an epic collapse against the 2-4 Illini. “I’ve really seen our habits and a lot of things around the building get better the last couple weeks. Coming off a win, you have to double down and do even more of it — make sure you’re focused, focus is good, your practice habits are good, your effort is good; and I expect the guys to respond well this week.”
At 2-4 and 2-3, respectively, Nebraska and Minnesota are both playing for potential bowl eligibility. The Huskers are looking to end the year on a three-game win streak and carry momentum into 2021. The shorthanded Gophers, meanwhile, have had to balance the here and now with the future as many young players — especially on the defense, which ranks last in the Big Ten — have been forced into action.
“This year has been a constant balance and very different than other years, because normal years we’re talking about now and now only,” Fleck said Monday. “But there’s this transparency and honesty that’s been talked about. Not only does whatever we’re doing now effect now against Nebraska and two weeks from now, it also effects 2021, because the year is eligible for everyone to come back and you don’t want to ignore that, either.”
Nebraska offense vs. Minnesota defense
It’s ironic and well-documented how much the Huskers offense, supposedly Frost’s calling card, has struggled this season. But with Adrian Martinez back as the starter, Nebraska has moved the ball much better the past two weeks — particularly in rolling up 364 yards and a season-high 37 points in last weekend’s win against Purdue.
Martinez, benched in favor of Luke McCaffrey midway through the season, looks a lot more like the true freshman who turned heads all over the country than the kid who played most of last fall injured and just plain wasn’t up to par in the early going this year.
Minnesota, meanwhile, has had a hard time stopping — well, anyone. Or anything. The Gophers are allowing 34.8 points per game (100th out of 127 FBS teams) and 405 yards per game (57th). They haven’t been stout in the takeaway department, either, with just 3 interceptions and 1 fumble recovery to its credit.
Nebraska defense vs. Minnesota offense
This is where things will get interesting.
For all its struggles, Minnesota — thanks in large part to Ibrahim — is one of the better rushing offenses in the country. They don’t do anything fancy with that inside zone scheme, but Ibrahim’s 163.4 yards per game should garner him first-team all-B1G consideration.
Nebraska, meanwhile, has seen perhaps its greatest improvement in the run defense department. Last season, the Huskers gave up 188 yards per game on the ground — including 322 in Minneapolis. That ranked 11th in the conference.
This year, led by big boys Casey Rodgers, Damion Daniels and Ty Robinson up front, the Blackshirts are allowing 170 yards on the ground per game. That’s not a huge quantifiable jump, but aesthetically, they aren’t getting pushed around by B1G offensive lines the way they did when Frost first showed up at his alma mater.
They held Purdue to minus-2 yards rushing last week and Iowa to 129 the week before.
This matchup could very well determine the outcome Saturday on either Big Ten Network or FOX Sports 1.
The point spread seems gaudy, but Minnesota’s missing too many pieces to pick it as a winner. We won’t know who those players are till warmups Saturday morning, but Ibrahim, quarterback Tanner Morgan, receiver Chris Autman-Bell, linebacker Mariano Sori-Marin and defensive back Phil Howard all spoke with the media this week. That’s a good sign for those stars’ health.
One stud who won’t be present is wideout Rashod Bateman, who after the Gophers’ cancellations opted out for the second time this year.
With that in mind and the assumption Nebraska’s spread-you-out, death-by-1,000-paper cuts attack continues to click, we’ll take the Huskers by a touchdown. Count on them to score at least 35 points and surpass 400 yards of offense for the first time this season.