LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska returns to Memorial Stadium this week after two brutal games.
The Huskers had the chance to prove themselves at Wisconsin two weeks ago and did, but couldn’t move the ball in overtime to steal a victory. A week later, Nebraska again had a chance to prove it can play with the big boys vs. Ohio State. But like it has in the past decade or so, Nebraska was embarrassed on national television in a big game.
Now, Nebraska (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) is faced with another challenge: saving face.
Minnesota (7-2, 4-2 Big Ten) is on a four-game winning streak and tied with Nebraska for second in the Big Ten West. The Gophers have won two of the last three matchups, including wins in 2013 and 2014 that put Indianapolis just out of reach for Nebraska.
Minnesota could do that same thing again on Saturday. Here’s how the two teams match up:
When Nebraska has the ball
This game will certainly depend on who starts at quarterback for the Huskers.
The Gophers are third in total defense, third in rush defense, but 13th in pass defense in the Big Ten.
Nebraska is determined to run the ball. Coach Mike Riley and offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf seem steadfast on running on first and second downs, but Nebraska hasn’t been consistent in that since the Northwestern game a month ago. It’ll be tough to do that again against Minnesota.
Which means third-down passing, and passing in general, will be key.
If Tommy Armstrong is cleared from concussion protocol and can play, Nebraska will need him to be accurate and consistent. He’s thrown one touchdown and four interceptions in his past three games. If Ryker Fyfe starts, he’ll need to play better than he did in his last start, at Purdue last year, when he threw four interceptions and four touchdowns.
But with Nebraska’s inability to run recently, Armstrong’s middling play and the potential of Fyfe as the starter, Minnesota has the upper hand, even if it has holes in its secondary.
When Minnesota has the ball
Minnesota has a better offense, statistically, than Nebraska.
The Gophers average 33 points per game (better than Nebraska), 210 rushing yards (20 yards better than Nebraska) and don’t turn over the ball (Nebraska does).
Minnesota’s offense is similar to Northwestern’s. The Gophers control the ball, milk the clock with their run game and force teams to make mistakes with misdirection. Minnesota RB Rodney Smith is second in rushing in the Big Ten. And though Minnesota’s passing game isn’t great, Drew Wolitarsky is third in the Big Ten in receptions with 45.
Nebraska’s defense, meanwhile, has started to average out. The Huskers gave up 62 points to Ohio State last week, and 223 rushing yards against Wisconsin the previous week. Nebraska is sixth in scoring defense, sixth in total defense, sixth in rushing defense and 10th in passing defense. Last week, they didn’t even force Ohio State to punt.
Minnesota isn’t a crazy complicated offense, but it could move around Nebraska’s defense.
Nebraska’s special teams did not do much against Ohio State but could be a factor on Saturday.
De’Mornay Pierson-El seems to have found a groove returning punts. He’s had 10- to 15-yard returns a few times the past few games. A block or two, and he could spring open for a punt-return touchdown, which would be huge for the struggling Nebraska offense.
P Caleb Lightbourn is improving steadily. KR Tre Bryant had a rough time at Ohio State but is usually pretty good at home.
This could be the spot where Nebraska makes up for its weaknesses elsewhere.
Nebraska was not ready for Ohio State, and its game plan at the end of the Wisconsin game was questionable.
This game could be a turning point for the coaching staff.
If Nebraska can win, and win convincingly, despite struggles the past two weeks, it would show just how good this coaching staff is.
It’s had great feats before: beating Michigan State last year, going 10-1 over 11 games after a 3-6 start. But this is where the coaching staff earns its paychecks — taking an injured, falling football team and propping it up again.
Nebraska needs to win this game. And it’ll be a tall task.
Minnesota is no joke, and Nebraska isn’t in a great position.
Luckily for the Huskers, they’re extremely good under the lights in Lincoln. But this needs to be a turning point in Nebraska’s season. It’s a 7-point favorite, but it’ll need to win by more than that to save face.
This is the beginning of the redemption tour for fans who had dreams of Indianapolis and even the College Football Playoff. This is the first step of legitimizing to fans who wanted a 10- or 11-win season. A loss would cause mass hysteria among Huskers fans.
Nebraska needs this game. And I think they’ll get it. But not by much.
Chris Heady’s prediction: Nebraska 21, Minnesota 17