Nebraska faces a critical Big Ten West game on the road at Minnesota on Saturday night. Let's take a closer look at how the Huskers and Gophers compare.
How the Huskers light up the scoreboard
1. Run, run, run. Adrian Martinez may not play. The weather looks iffy. The wind might be whipping. What better time than to use the variety of running styles between Dedrick Mills, Maurice Washington and Wan’Dale Robinson in creative ways?
2. Keep the Mo. Not momentum, in this case, but Washington. Running backs coach Ryan Held challenged the sophomore to be a dependable, four-quarter player for the Huskers. That would really help.
3. Handle with care. The Huskers played their first turnover-free game under Scott Frost last week against Northwestern and won a close, low-scoring game. Not a coincidence. Two straight is a good prescription.
4. Finish it off. Nebraska’s touchdown percentage in the red zone is 50, which ranks No. 105 in the country and No. 12 in the Big Ten. When the Huskers get the ball down close, particularly given the kicking situation, they must capitalize.
How the Blackshirts shut ’em down
1. Clean eyes, full hearts. Senior corner Lamar Jackson talked this week about how Minnesota will test you and test you and test you until you finally bite and make a mistake in the RPO game. The key: Clean eyes and sound technique.
2. Beware of the senior citizens. Two of UM’s top running backs — Shannon Brooks and Rodney Smith — are in their fifth and sixth college years, respectively. Brooks is still working back from an injury, but both average more than 5 yards per carry.
3. Pressure Morgan. Gophers quarterback Tanner Morgan is completing 70.3% of his passes this year, but has also been sacked 16 times in five games. Nebraska must get pressure on him and either sack him or force mistakes.
4. Wind-powered. The Huskers feel they hold up against Gopher receivers Tyler Johnson, Rashod Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell. Would the wind, which is forecast to gust to 35 mph, hurt Nebraska’s cause? Probably not. A cold, windy, ugly game might just work in NU’s favor.
Three numbers to know
1,107: Combined receiving yards from Johnson, Bateman and Autman-Bell through five games for the Gophers at a rate of 17.9 per catch.
17: Touches per game for NU freshman Robinson over the past three games after just 5.7 per game over NU’s first three. He’s going to get the ball a lot on Saturday.
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78.6: Percent of red-zone possessions that have ended in touchdowns for Minnesota’s opponents this year, worst in the Big Ten. The Gophers are the only team in the league to allow points on every red-zone trip this year (14-of-14).
Under the radar
LG | No. 75 | So.: It’s probably not the worst sign in the world that Hixson, the first-year starter at left guard, hasn’t been talked about much this season. He’s been steady, if unspectacular, left of center Cameron Jurgens. As the season goes on and Hixson settles in, the Omaha Skutt graduate seems to be playing a little bit faster.
CB | No. 17 | RFr.: The 6-foot-4, 200-pound Clark has big-time talent and has seen his role increase ever so slightly as the season progresses. Secondary coach Travis Fisher likes to keep Dicaprio Bootle and Lamar Jackson on the field, and with good reason. Clark saw some time in NU’s sub packages last week and could be in for more work this weekend against the dangerous Gophers.
Minnesota’s receiving corps against Nebraska’s secondary
Nebraska has its work cut out against the Gophers receivers and Morgan. Last week, the Huskers used a little bit of a dime package against Northwestern that included junior Bootle moving from outside down to the slot and aligned Clark opposite Jackson. That group will likely be counted on again, as will versatile players like Cam Taylor-Britt and JoJo Domann, who are asked to play against the pass and run interchangeably. Can the Huskers prevent UM from racking up big plays down the field?
Nebraska’s defensive line against Minnesota’s offensive line
OK, this isn’t exactly a big mismatch. On paper, there’s not much that's lopsided about this matchup. But if Nebraska is going to beat the Gophers, it is going to have to control the line of scrimmage. The Huskers did it last week against Northwestern. Can they do it against an offense that has made big plays but also allowed 16 sacks and checks in at No. 54 nationally in yards per play and No. 73 in total offense? If they don’t, it could be a long night.
Nebraska 21, Minnesota 20
Back and forth, back and forth. Indecision reigns this week. If this game was being played on a beautiful, 75-degree day or indoors, it might be the Gophers with the edge. If Nebraska hadn’t shown that it could be turnover-free last week, the Gophers might have the edge. Heck, it might well still be the Gophers with the edge. If the Huskers need to go to quarterback Noah Vedral, he’s well-equipped to keep Nebraska on schedule and has a play-making knack. NU is going to need its defense to make some plays, it’s going to need to avoid a big gap in the special-teams game, and it’s going to have to have somebody besides Robinson step up on offense. Just a gut, but the guess here is the Huskers get enough to secure a critical win before their first bye week.