Coach: P.J. Fleck (fourth season, 55-40 overall, 25-18 at Minnesota).
Rankings: Not ranked.
OFFENSIVE RATING: 7
Averages / national rank
30.0 / 56
407.8 / 55
198.2 / 35
209.6 / 83
DEFENSIVE RATING: 2
Averages / national rank
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34.8 / 100
456.2 / 107
215.6 / 111
240.6 / 75
SPECIALISTS RATING: 3
Averages / national rank
18.38 / 92
4.00 / 101
35.50 / 106
Why you may need Rolaids
1. One of the very best running backs in the nation wears maroon and gold. Mohamed Ibrahim has rushed for 817 yards and 13 touchdowns in just five games, averaging 5.3 yards per carry. Ibrahim has accounted for 82% of Minnesota's total rushing yards, and 13 of the 17 rushing touchdowns. He heads into Saturday's game ninth on Minnesota's all-time rushing yards list despite playing in just 26 games. Ibrahim ran for 84 yards and three TDs against NU last season.
2. Minnesota is much better equipped than Illinois to make Nebraska pay for a lackadaisical effort, and look at what the Illini did to NU a couple of weeks ago. Ibrahim, quarterback Tanner Morgan and a massive offensive line will be ready to punish the Huskers should they stumble around like they did against Illinois coming off a win the previous week. Minnesota has struggled this season, but it hasn't forgotten how to win.
3. Nebraska would do well to avoid a slow start. Minnesota is 21-3 all-time under P.J. Fleck when it scores first, and the Gophers are 24-2 when leading at half. Combined with Nebraska's second-half adventures this season, that's a potentially dangerous spot to be in should the Huskers be on the short end of the scoreboard after two quarters.
Why you might chill
1. This is more like the 2018 Minnesota defense that Scott Frost's first Nebraska team shredded than last year's unit that limited NU to seven points. The Gophers are last in the Big Ten and 107th nationally in yards allowed, and last in the league and 100th nationally in points allowed. Of Minnesota's first five opponents, only Illinois failed to score at least 31 points.
2. Minnesota might be rested, but who knows how everything else will look as the Gophers come off a two-week pause to deal with COVID-19 issues. Minnesota will certainly have some rust to knock off, which could translate to another quick start for Nebraska's offense. And with an already shaky Minnesota defensive unit, getting up a couple of scores early could be more than enough for NU.
3. This could very well be it in Memorial Stadium for many of Nebraska's seniors, a group that through everything that has gone on this year, just wanted to play football. All those guys have the option to return next season, and there could still be one more home game in the offing. But emotions will likely be high for what could be the team's final home appearance of 2020. Motivation shouldn't be a problem.
By the numbers
49: The number of individuals in Minnesota's program, 23 players and 26 staffers, who tested positive for COVID-19 from Nov. 19-Dec. 3.
18: Number of consecutive games in which Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan had thrown a touchdown pass before that streak ended Nov. 20 against Purdue.
2: The Gophers have attempted just two field goals this season, making both. Opponents are 2-for-8 on field goal tries against Minnesota.
Megan Ryan covers Minnesota football for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Do you have any sense for how Minnesota feels about its chances Saturday coming off the two-week pause?
MR: Well, as I’m sure everyone has surmised about a P.J. Fleck program by this point, it’s all about positivity. So I’m confident the message internally is “not letting the circumstances dictate your behavior” and other oft-used Fleckisms. The Gophers have been good in the past about rebounding from bad performances. Obviously, this situation is a little different, with it being a two-week break from football while a significant portion of the team dealt with COVID-19. From my perspective, a lot of these players and staff have to be just mentally drained from this season, the turbulence on and off the field. It wouldn’t shock me if they came out pretty flat at Nebraska this weekend. But at the same time, if a bowl game is their aim, it’s not fully out of reach if they can win the final two games. So there is something still to play for, if they aren’t just totally over 2020 by now, ha-ha. I wouldn’t blame them if they were.
How good has running back Mohamed Ibrahim been this year?
MR: So good. He’s been the one bright spot in a dark year for Gophers football. I’ve been a fan of Mo’s ever since I met him at Big Ten Media Days ahead of last season, my first on the beat. He’s a really nice guy. And he’s a ferocious rusher. I’ve admired how even though he’s not the biggest dude, he is so physical. He’s great at getting yards after contact, turning nothing into something. And it’s been fun to watch him rise this year (while the rest of his team sort of collapses around him ha-ha). He was the default No. 1 in 2018 when Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks had injuries and graciously took a backseat when those two returned in 2019. But he’s picked back up without a hitch, and I’ve heard he’s become the mentor to the young running backs that Smith and Brooks were to him. He’s a fan fave and a team fave. And I could wax poetic about Mo for ages.
Obviously Minnesota lost some really good players from last season. But is there anything else you can point to for why the defense has struggled like it has?
MR: My big realization about defense didn’t actually have anything to do with tackling technique or scheme or whatnot. To me, the biggest difference is communication, trust, chemistry. All of those guys that left last year, while they undoubtedly brought NFL-caliber talent, were also strong leaders and friends. Guys like Carter Coughlin, Antoine Winfield, Kamal Martin, Thomas Barber had been friends and roommates for years, some had known each other since childhood. And other seniors on defense had played with each other for four or five years. The communication those guys had developed, the instinct, the trust, that’s incredibly hard to replace, especially in just one season. This year’s defense is all over the place, and I don’t think it’s because they’re bad players or don’t know the fundamentals. I think it’s because they don’t know each other fairly well and didn’t have the usual spring practice and training camp to become familiar. Players don’t trust their teammates to do their jobs, so they try to do it for them, and massive breakdowns occur. Yes, individual lapses have contributed. And the coaches need to do a better job righting the ship. But the players desperately need someone to step up and take charge.
COVID-19 aside, what has the attitude been like around the program with the struggles coming off such a successful 2019 season?
MR: Hard to say. Again, Fleck programs are all about the culture, and with that comes the messaging. So he drills it into his team that each season is its own entity, and one can’t expect to be good just from last year’s results, and vice versa. So everything the coaches and players will publicly say is that. This hasn’t been the year they wanted, but they take it one day at a time, insert another cliché. And hey, if that helps them all keep a level head, who am I to judge? But I will also say that they are all human beings, and as a fellow human being, I can tell you it’s been hard. It’s hard to have such high expectations come crashing down, especially because of things outside of their control. But there’s also a healthy understanding that this year isn’t the end all, be all. Everyone has their eligibility restored and could come back for a (hopefully) more normal season next year. And maybe all the drama from 2020 will make them that much stronger. I assume their attitude is much like the rest of us: Let’s just get through this year.
How does Minnesota adjust with star receiver Rashod Bateman opting out for the rest of the season?
MR: Losing Bateman will make a dent. It’s unavoidable with his level of talent. But at the same time, it’s not like the Gophers passing game was totally clicking while he was still on the team. Bate had struggled being put in some different spots, including at slot, where Tyler Johnson so excelled last year. I’m not sure that always suited him, and I think he and quarterback Tanner Morgan never quite worked out their timing. Chris Autman-Bell has always played second or third fiddle to Bateman and Johnson, but now he’s the No. 1 guy. And I think he’s ready for it. He’s honestly had more memorable catches this season than Bateman. There’s also some good up-and-comers in Daniel Jackson, a true freshman, and Mike Brown-Stephens, John Legend’s nephew. That had nothing to do with football, I just love that fun fact, ha-ha. But anyway, I’ll be excited to see what those guys can do and how Morgan can adapt to more targets.
Contact the writer at email@example.com or 402-473-7436. On Twitter @HuskerExtraCB.