Nebraska is 0-6 for the first time in the program’s 129-year history, but this week presents a chance to get a victory in conference play (3:30 p.m. ET Saturday, Big Ten Network) when Minnesota visits Memorial Stadium.
The Cornhuskers are coming off a heartbreaking 34-31 overtime loss last week at Northwestern. Big Red’s losing streak now stands at 10 games dating back to last season.
Here are 5 things I’d like to see from the Cornhuskers against the Golden Gophers to avoid having that losing streak reach 11.
Watch for Ibrahim
Last week, Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim and his offensive line lit up Ohio State. The sophomore rushed for a career-high 157 yards and two touchdowns on 23 carries in a 30-14 loss to the Buckeyes. That accounted for 40 percent of Minnesota’s offense. The Golden Gophers have a massive O-line; the five starters against Ohio State averaged 6 feet 6 and 327 pounds. Nebraska will have to be physical and disciplined to stop Ibrahim and Minnesota’s ground game.
Get special teams clicking
J.D. Spielman got Nebraska’s first really nice punt return of the season against the Wildcats, a 19-yarder — except that the Cornhuskers gave back 10 of those yards on a holding penalty (more on those yellow hankies later). Barret Pickering missed a 45-yard field goal and an extra point. For the season, the Cornhuskers are 111th in the FBS in kick returns (17.4-yard average) and 124th in punt returns (2.88 average). Just one big play — a kick block, a big return, something — might finally energize this unit.
Hang on to the ball
Nebraska’s turnover margin is minus-7, one of the worst in the country. In the Big Ten, only Rutgers (minus-13, the worst in the nation) ranks lower. It’s understandable that the Cornhuskers would have seven interceptions with true freshman quarterback Adrian Martinez still learning on the job. But there’s no excuse for losing six fumbles, as Nebraska has done so far.
Penalties (yes, again)
Nebraska commits too many penalties (I should have this sentence on a save string by now). The Cornhuskers started the Northwestern game with a false start on their first play, then most of the rest were physical penalties. But the real killer was that four of those infractions came in the fourth quarter or overtime. A false start in OT turned what would have been a third-and-1 play into third and 6 and Nebraska came up empty. But it’s no surprise that this area would have been an issue in that particular game because Nebraska commits the second-most penalties in the nation (10.17 per game) and Northwestern gets called for the fewest, just 2.83 per game. Sure enough, the Cornhuskers had nine accepted penalties for 89 yards and the Wildcats just one for 5 yards. Nebraska’s 96 penalty yards per game lead the nation.
One big stop
For all of the mistakes that Nebraska had last week, it still could have won had the defense just come up with one stop. And Northwestern’s last two drives of regulation had to be particularly galling for Big Red Nation: The Wildcats converted on fourth down from their own 25-yard line, then hit on a fourth-and-10 play when Flynn Nagel, who was unstoppable all day, made a 16-yard catch to set up a field goal as Northwestern got within 31-24. And even after the Cornhuskers went three and out, they pinned Northwestern at the 1, only to let the Wildcats march 99 yards for a touchdown in less than two minutes to force overtime. One stop in any of those situations would have won it for Nebraska. Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson had 198 yards passing after three quarters and wound up with 455. Ouch.