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Illinois Minnesota Football

Minnesota running back Rodney Smith rushes against Illinois in the third quarter Saturday in Minneapolis. Smith ran for 211 yards as Minnesota won 40-17.

Location: Minneapolis.

Coach: P.J. Fleck (47-35 overall, 17-13 at Minnesota).

Record: 5-0, 2-0 Big Ten.

Rankings: Not ranked AP; No. 25 coaches

OFFENSIVE RATING: 6

Offensive averages / national rank

Points

35.8/ 30

Total yards

409.0 / 73

Rushing yards

159.0 / 71

Passing yards

250.0 / 57

DEFENSIVE RATING: 7

Defensive averages / national rank

Points

27.2 / 68

Total yards

314.4 / 28

Rushing yards

113.6 / 33

Passing yards

200.8 / 41

SPECIALISTS RATING: 5

Special-teams averages / national rank

Kickoff returns

21.6 / 60

Punt returns

9.0 / 52

Net punting

39.17 / 47

Why you may need Rolaids

1. Sure it was against Illinois, but Minnesota finally found its running game to go along with its talented receivers. The Gophers rumbled for 332 yards on the ground against the Illini, turning almost exclusively to the running game in a second half during which they outscored Illinois 24-7. Rodney Smith went over 200 yards while Shannon Brooks went past the century mark. If Minnesota is able to replicate that success against Nebraska, it could be a long night for the Blackshirts.

2. Minnesota has played four one-possession games this season and won all four. While Nebraska fans could be heartened by the fact that all four of those games came against inferior opponents, the fact remains that the Gophers found a way to win all four and came from behind in three of them. If Nebraska leads late and Minnesota has the ball, you can bet the Gophers won't be nervous about needing to get a score.

3. Saturday's weather forecast calls for a high of 39 degrees with snow in the morning and rain the rest of the day, along with winds gusting up to 35 mph. For a Nebraska offense that has struggled to hang on to the ball and struggled with wayward snaps, ball security could be a major issue. Minnesota might be content to keep things close and wait for the Huskers to make a critical mistake with a turnover.

Why you might chill

1. Some of the key players on this Nebraska team have a history of big individual performances against Minnesota. Last year it was Adrian Martinez going 25-for-29 passing for 276 yards and rushing for a career-high 125 yards, and Maurice Washington running for a career-best 109 yards. In the 2017 matchup, JD Spielman had a career-high 291 all-purpose yards. Will another player step forward with a huge performance Saturday to give NU an edge?

2. The Huskers exorcised their road demons at Illinois, ending a seven-game road losing streak by driving for a late touchdown and holding off the Illini at the end. Nebraska didn't play great in that game, but perhaps getting out of Champaign with a win lifted an unseen weight from this team that allows it to play at a higher level away from Lincoln.

3. On paper, Nebraska will be the best team Minnesota has seen this season, and the Gophers haven't exactly set the world on fire so far. Save for last week's blowout of a toothless Illinois team, in which the Gophers essentially did the same thing to the Illini that Nebraska did, but without the turnovers, every game Minnesota has played has been a dogfight. Is that a sign of a team simply doing enough to win, or something more? Saturday could provide an answer.

By the numbers

5

Since 2004, five teams before Minnesota started a season 5-0 without being ranked in the Associated Press poll. All five teams lost their sixth game.

7

Minnesota has won seven consecutive games dating to last season, good enough for the fifth-longest current winning streak in the country.

1986

Minnesota's 78 combined points in its first two Big Ten games are its most to start conference play since scoring 80 in its first two league games in 1986.

Press coverage

Megan Ryan covers Minnesota football for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

5-0 is 5-0, but has it been difficult to judge just how good the Gophers might be considering the nature of their first four games?

Yes, kind of. Not just because its been mostly close games but mostly because the team’s been a little inconsistent. The defense was bad at Purdue and stellar against Illinois. The passing game was unstoppable at Purdue but dropped and mis-threw all over the place against Illinois. The run game had been quiet all year until a breakout this past week. It’s a matter of putting all those individual areas together at the same time, which hasn’t quite happened yet. But I don’t think you can write off the Gophers being 5-0 despite that. That hints to some intangible aspect this team has to just pull off wins despite mistakes.

How important was it for Minnesota to get its running game on track Saturday against Illinois?

Very. The rush has been a usual strong point for the Gophers, and with seniors Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks back this year, plus sophomore Mohamed Ibrahim after he carried the team when those two were injured, that was supposed to be a dominant area. But it took a few games for Smith to find his groove, and Brooks has only played two games so far. So I think this is when the ground game turns the corner. Good thing, too, because the receivers, as fantastic as they are, can’t always carry the offense, as seen against Illinois.

Clearly coaches and players are saying the right things about taking one game at a time, but have you gotten any sense that the 5-0 start has the potential to turn into something special?

I try not to prognosticate too much. I prefer to stay silent about my predictions so that no one knows when I’m wrong or right, ha-ha. It’s also my first year on the beat, so who am I to say if this season feels different? I will say, the last college football team I covered went to the Rose Bowl (Penn State 2016, gone but not forgotten) so maybe it’s me, I’m the winning curse. I’m kidding, but I did have the Gophers around an 8-4 team this year. Just didn’t realize that with their favorable schedule, going 8-0 to start was a tangible reality.

Last season, this matchup turned into Nebraska’s first win of the season after a 0-6 start. How is Minnesota different now than at this point one year ago?

Well, they have a new defensive coordinator. Robb Smith is gone, and Joe Rossi is in. So far, Rossi has really turned the defense around, even as quickly as the last four games of 2018 after he took over in the interim. And there are some real playmakers on that side of the ball, from sophomore safety Antoine Winfield Jr., to senior linebacker Kamal Martin to emerging cornerback Benjamin St-Juste to rush end Carter Coughlin. So I’d expect Nebraska’s offense, especially if Martinez and Spielman are out, to have a tougher time.

Is there any one thing that makes Rashod Bateman, Tyler Johnson and Chris Autman-Bell so difficult to guard in the passing game?

I think the answer is in the question. They’re difficult to guard because there’s three of them. When Johnson was being double-covered in the first two games, Bateman and Autman-Bell stepped up for big plays. When Johnson finally got some one-on-one matchups against Georgia Southern, he torched those corners. Defenses can’t really lighten up on any of them, and that’s what makes them dangerous. Plus, they can all make some highlight-reel plays, from Bateman’s one-handed grab to Autman-Bell’s barely in-bounds touchdown catch to Johnson’s snag of his own tip with defenders surrounding him. They’re good.

Nebraska's foes for 2019

Reach the writer at 402-473-7436 or cbasnett@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraCB.

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Husker basketball reporter

A Ravenna native, Chris covers the University of Nebraska men's basketball team and assists with football coverage. He spent nearly 10 years covering sports at the Kearney Hub and nearly four years at the Springfield News-Leader in Springfield, Mo.

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