Coach: Jerry Kill (29-28, fifth season)
Record: 4-2 (1-1 Big Ten)
Series with Nebraska: Minnesota leads 31-22-2
OFFENSIVE RATING: 4
Offensive averages / national rank
19.7 / 117
348.5 / 100
142.8 / 48
176.5 / 105
DEFENSIVE RATING: 8
Defensive averages / national rank
19.0 / 28
306.2 / 21
142.8 / 48
163.3 / 15
SPECIAL TEAMS RATING: 7
Special teams averages / national rank
19.3 / 95
1.5 / 123
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39.4 / 32
Kickoff return defense
22.2 / NA
Punt return defense
8.0 / NA
Why you may need the Rolaids
1. Minnesota has begun returning to its roots of running the football with a basic, no-frills attack. After throwing it more in nonconference games, the Gophers have worked to re-establish the run, and ran for 326 yards against Purdue, their most in a Big Ten game since 2005. The Gophers ran 53 times against Nebraska last season, and gained 5.3 yards a pop. Running back Rodney Smith (24) has a team-best 447 rushing yards, but true freshman Shannon Brooks (27) is coming off a 17-carry, 176-yard performance, including a 71-yard run, against Purdue. “Everybody talks about the long run,” Minnesota coach Jerry Kill said. “But he had several 8- to 10-yard runs where he just ran over people.”
2. Nebraska’s first two Big Ten Conference games, both losses, featured quarterbacks who led late, game-winning touchdown drives. The Huskers’ nerves won’t be calmed, then, in knowing that Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner (7) has directed two late, long touchdown drives to put the Gophers ahead. His TD pass with 30 seconds left capped a 78-yard drive and helped the Gophers defeat Ohio 24-20, and he completed five passes for 62 yards in an 80-yard touchdown drive that gave Minnesota a 20-17 lead at Colorado State with 55 seconds to play. The Gophers won in overtime.
3. Minnesota’s defensive backs are every bit as good and physical as Wisconsin’s. The Gophers’ veteran secondary has been hit hard by injury but still ranks ninth nationally in team pass-efficiency defense (96.86) and 15th in passing yards allowed (163.3 per game). Not since August of 2014 has a team topped 300 passing yards against Minnesota, and the last Big Ten team to do it was Nebraska in 2012.
Why you might chill
1. Nebraska isn’t alone in being bitten hard by the injury bug. Minnesota has played games without as many as eight starters sidelined because of injury, forcing Jerry Kill to thrust some young players into action. Of the 68 Gophers who suited up for the Purdue game last week, 21 were freshmen, including center Tyler Moore (71), who burned his redshirt against the Boilermakers. Kill has played 18 true and redshirt freshmen.
2. While Leidner has come through in the clutch to save the Gophers in a couple of games this season, he’s also been shaky enough that Kill pulled the redshirt off freshman Demry Croft (11) in the second half of a 27-0 loss at Northwestern. Leidner was 10-of-21 passing for 72 yards in that game, and Croft was 5-of-11 for 27 yards. And remember Leidner rushing for 111 yards last year against Nebraska? Because of an unspecified injury, he hasn’t been running as much this season — no more than 47 yards in a game thus far — but Leidner said this week he’s feeling much better.
3. Minnesota ranks 117th in scoring offense and 100th in total offense. Most of the Gophers’ offensive problems have resulted from injuries, youth, and lack of continuity and consistency along the offensive line. Nebraska has had its share of injuries on the defensive front, but this could be a game where Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine make their presence felt more often than not.
By the numbers
True freshmen Minnesota has played this season — LB Julian Huff (20), DB KiAnte Hardin (3), DB Blake Cashman (36), WR Rashad Still (88), DB Antonio Shenault (34), RB Shannon Brooks (27), QB Demry Croft (11), DB Jacob Huff (17) and OL Tyler Moore (71). The Gophers have also played nine redshirt freshmen.
FBS schools that have three or fewer seniors at offensive skill positions — quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end — this season. Minnesota is one of those teams, with only senior receiver KJ Maye (1) and running back Rodrick Williams (35) playing. Tight end Lincoln Plsek (85) is injured and has not played this season.
Career punting yards for Minnesota senior Peter Mortell (37), who has a career punting average of 44 yards to rank first in school history. Mortell has 47 career punts that have traveled at least 50 yards and five of at least 60, including a career-long 65 yards at Northwestern this season. He has 61 career punts downed inside the 20-yard line.
Andy Greder covers Minnesota football for the St. Paul Pioneer-Press.
1. Injuries have ravaged teams across the country this season, but none in the Big Ten more than Minnesota. In what areas have injuries hurt the Gophers the most, and in what ways has Jerry Kill tried to adapt and adjust?
“The two biggest position groups hit by injuries are the offensive line and secondary. The Gophers are currently without center Brian Bobek and tackle Josh Campion. Also, cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun is questionable, but safety Damarius Travis will miss his sixth game. Kill has had little choice but to test his depth. They removed the redshirt of center Tyler Moore last week at Purdue and have had sophomore walk-on Adekunle Ayinde playing well at safety.”
2. Mitch Leidner won’t be confused with having a Heisman Trophy arm, but then again neither was Joel Stave, who gave Nebraska’s porous pass defense trouble when it mattered most. What types of throws is Leidner most adept at completing, and can he beat Nebraska with his arm?
“Shock and awe swept over me when I saw the Badgers throw it 50 times last Saturday. Minnesota, however, won’t do that. Leidner is at his best off of play-action, in particular on bootlegs. They like to throw short passes within 10 yards and work in throws to running backs. Last week, tight end Brandon Lingen (three catches, 22 yards) channeled Maxx Williams, now with the Baltimore Ravens. Expect Leidner to look for Lingen more.”
3. Nebraska just faced a physical Wisconsin secondary, and coaches here say Minnesota is every bit as physical. Who have been the stars of the secondary, and what’s your opinion on how defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys has molded the Gophers into a formidable defense?
“Nebraska coaches are spot-on: The Gophers secondary is stingy. Cornerback Eric Murray is the leader, with safety Antonio Johnson and corner Jalen Myrick also playing at a high level. Claeys likes to play press and man-to-man coverage on the outside and the skill of the secondary allows him to do it with a level of comfort.”
4. Longtime Nebraska fans know the importance of coaching continuity. How or why has Kill been able to keep his staff so intact at Minnesota, and what factor has it played in his rebuilding process?
The reason for the coaching continuity is Kill puts them first. He made sure they got raises before his pay bump was announced in August. Another factor is they haven’t been let go from a previous program, and therefore, individually had to find jobs through connections at other schools.
5. Nebraska is 2-4, but it’s a deceptive 2-4. Minnesota has won two straight in the series and obviously won’t be intimidated by a brand name, yet is there any part of Nebraska’s team this year that may cause Kill and his staff some sleepless nights this week?
“Kill has mentioned Nebraska’s defensive front as an area of focus. The Gophers want to run the football, and Maliek Collins and Vincent Valentine pose a threat in the middle.”