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Scouting Minnesota: Breaking down the Golden Gophers

Scouting Minnesota: Breaking down the Golden Gophers

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Minnesota vs. Nebraska, 12.12

Nebraska cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt (left) goes to tackle Minnesota quarterback Tanner Morgan in the second quarter of a Dec. 12, 2020, game at Memorial Stadium. 

Location: Minneapolis

Coach: P.J. Fleck (5th year at Minnesota, 29-21, 59-43 overall).

Record: 3-2, 1-1 Big Ten

Rankings: None.


Averages / national rank


24.4 / 95

Total yards

334.2 / 110

Rushing yards

192.4 / 38

Passing yards

141.8 / 124


Averages / national rank


19.6 / 28

Total yards

307.8 / 20

Rushing yards

77.0 / 5

Passing yards

230.8 / 72


Averages / national rank

Kickoff returns

19.90 / 74

Punt returns

10.00 / 43

Net punting

41.09 / 43

Why you may need Rolaids

1. Nebraska has already faced some stout rushing defenses this season, and Minnesota's might be the best so far. The Gophers allow just 77 yards per game on the ground, and limited Colorado to minus-19 yards rushing. Over its last three games, starting with the Colorado contest, Minnesota has allowed 80 total yards on the ground (22 vs. Bowling Green, 77 vs. Purdue). Nebraska's offensive line will need one of its best games if NU is going to move the ball on the ground.

2. This game is every bit as big for Minnesota as it is for the Huskers. Coming off a bye week, Saturday marks the first of four games the Gophers probably view as very winnable, with contests against Maryland, Northwestern and Illinois following before a date with Iowa. The four-week stretch is a golden opportunity to build momentum into what could be a huge game against Iowa in mid-November, and a win over Nebraska would certainly be a spark.

3. Another standout punter awaits Nebraska's special teams. Mark Crawford was the Big Ten special teams player of the week on Oct. 2, after averaging 51.3 yards on six punts with a pair of 60-yarders. If Crawford has another big day, combined with a strong rushing defense, Nebraska could be in field position peril much of the afternoon.

Steven M. Sipple and Parker Gabriel deliver the latest Two-Minute Drill on Monday at Memorial Stadium.

Why you might chill

1. Minnesota's offense already wasn't much to write home about, and now the Gophers are down their top two running backs and had a offensive lineman who was in the rotation enter the transfer portal earlier this week. Quarterback Tanner Morgan, who was so good two seasons ago while earning second-team all-Big Ten honors, has seen his production fall each of the ensuing seasons, though he should get some help back at receiver this week. Nebraska's defense should be able to handle most of what Minnesota will throw at it.

2. Oddly enough, Minnesota is just 2-2 under P.J. Fleck coming off a bye week, with both the wins coming by one score. With Minnesota's running back situation, and an unsettled passing game, it's hard to imagine the Gophers throwing anything too exotic at NU; instead, they'll likely try to win with ball control and field position. That's not necessarily a bad plan when facing the Huskers, but Nebraska should at least have a pretty good idea of what's coming.

3. Hey, the weather forecast looks much improved over the last time Nebraska visited Minneapolis in 2019, when it was 37 degrees with gusty winds and a rain/snow mix that had more than a few guys on NU's roster looking like they didn't want to be there, and Scott Frost questioning why his players were wearing hoodies. Mid-50s and sunny is a plenty good combination for mid-October. There shouldn't be any worries about want-to in that department.

By the numbers

62: Nebraska and Minnesota will meet for the 62nd time Saturday. The Gophers are NU's most common Big Ten opponent.

12: After not recording a sack in the first two games, the Gophers have had four sacks in each of their last three games.

37: Minnesota's defense has forced nine turnovers, scoring off seven of them, and turning those takeaways into 37 total points.

Press coverage

Randy Johnson covers the Gophers for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Where does Minnesota turn now at running back with its top two options out for the year?

RJ: P.J. Fleck is fond of the old Glen Mason saying regarding running backs that a team needs “a pair and a spare.’’ That’s certainly the case with the Gophers, who likely will have true freshman Mar’Keise “Bucky’’ Irving as its feature back beginning Saturday. I don’t think Irving will match the average of 29 carries that Potts had in his first three starts, and Fleck mentioned that a committee approach is more likely this time. If that’s the case, redshirt freshman Ky Thomas likely is the top option after Irving, with redshirt sophomore Cam Wiley and redshirt junior Bryce Williams in the mix.

Where is the mindset of this team right now, with Trey Potts' scary medical situation, and now Curtis Dunlap Jr. entering the transfer portal?

RJ: Last week’s bye came at a good time for the Gophers, especially with Potts’ injury. They had a week to process everything, and they also had time to address an offense that’s sputtered in the passing game. The victory at Purdue was sorely needed after that awful showing in the loss to Bowling Green, and though the Gophers didn’t air it out against the Boilermakers, they did just enough with some big plays to win. The team’s mindset likely is refining and refocusing with a key stretch continuing Saturday against Nebraska.

Speaking of Dunlap, how much does that shake things up on the offensive line?

RJ: It will hurt the line’s depth a bit, but it shouldn’t be a devastating blow. Dunlap started the first three games of the season and moved to a rotational basis against Bowling Green and Purdue. He had his lowest snap count against the Boilermakers. With Dunlap gone, Axel Ruschmeyer moves into a more prominent role. It’ll be interesting to see if the Gophers continue to rotate linemen or rely on five starters plus an extra lineman or two in jumbo packages.

With all that's happened, do you see any major changes in how the Minnesota offense operates coming off the bye week?

RJ: The Gophers must get a lot more from their passing game, and the bye should help that. Top receiver Chris Autman-Bell missed the first two games of the season and all but the first series of the loss to Bowling Green because of ankle injury suffered in training camp. The bye week gave him time to heal. Starting wideout Dylan Wright, the transfer from Texas A&M, missed the Purdue game because of a death in the family, and he’ll be back against Nebraska. The offensive line needs to protect Tanner Morgan better and give him time to have more than the seven completions he’s averaged over the past two games.

One game at a time and all that, but how important of a four-game stretch is this, beginning with Nebraska and ending with Illinois before playing Iowa?

RJ: This stretch of Nebraska, Maryland, Northwestern and Illinois, plus the game against Purdue, is where the Gophers need to make their money. Technically, they’re still in the Big Ten West race, but they can’t afford another loss before they meet Iowa on Nov. 13 in Iowa City. This game should serve as a great measuring stick for the Gophers because Nebraska has played three unbeaten opponents tough without getting the result it wanted. Because of that loss to Bowling Green, the Gophers still need three wins to reach bowl eligibility, and the math would get much more challenging with a loss Saturday.