With questions at quarterback from both teams, you might see up to five different quarterbacks taking significant snaps Saturday when Nebraska travels to Minnesota. Depending on the health of Taylor Martinez, Tommy Armstrong and Ron Kellogg should both see the field as well.
Minnesota might have an even more mysterious situation at quarterback; the Gophers haven’t announced who will start between freshman Mitch Leidner and sophomore Philip Nelson. Nebraska defensive coordinator John Papuchis said both quarterbacks are similar enough that his defense won’t have to adjust whether it’s Leidner or Nelson under center.
“What they both do well is they’re both physical runners,” Papuchis said. “Their whole team is a physical group. The way I look at it is they’re going to pound the football, they’re going to try to impose their will on us and it’s gonna come down to who’s tougher.”
Papuchis said Minnesota’s physicality and run-first mentality has been evident all year, not just in the win against Northwestern last weekend.
“No matter what game I’ve ever seen them play, they play tough,” he said. “That’s just who they are. It didn’t surprise me one bit that they were able to win the game.”
The Gophers method of winning is forcing the opponent to play Minnesota’s type of football, rather than playing into the other team and its strengths, he said.
“If they can make it a low-scoring ugly kind of grind-it-out football game, that’s right in their wheelhouse,” Papuchis said.
–The run-heavy Gophers rank 29th in the country averaging just over 210 rushing yards per game. Huskers defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski said the decrease in drop-back passes won’t change the way Nebraska plays from the defensive line, especially from a pass-rush standpoint.
“We do a lot with four-man rush; you’ve got to be sound,” he said. “You can’t get above the quarterback.”
Kaczenski said understanding the coverage behind the defensive line is the most crucial part of how effective the line plays.
“That’s going to affect the way we rush,” he said. “It’s not about getting sacks. It’s about taking away rush lanes, it’s about taking away throwing windows, taking out the scrambling, all those things…there’s a lot more to it. We’ve got some good cover guys, you know, let those guys cover.”
–Both Kaczenski and secondary coach Terry Joseph said Minnesota plays a lot of max protect on offense (two tight ends on the line of scrimmage) to bolster the run game and keep the quarterback on his feet. Kaczenski said the key to attacking those offensive sets is sound fundamentals to avoid getting linemen pinned and opening up gaps and running lanes.
“You’ve still got to press the pocket, too,” he said. “You’ve got to keep moving vertically towards the quarterback.”
Like on the line, Joseph said discipline in the secondary is key when the safeties are so heavily involved in defending the run. He added that Minnesota adds another type to the variety of offenses Nebraska’s young defense has seen this season.
“Again this week we’ll have a lot of personnel groupings we’ll have to deal with and make sure our communication is up to par,” Joseph said. “We’ve just got to get out there and be tough, physical, and play with a lot of eye control.”
Joseph said Minnesota’s offense aims to minimize pressure on the quarterback with protection and the run game, which stresses defensive backs by involving safeties in run-stopping.
“The plays are gonna be a little bit longer this week, especially in those big sets,” he said. “(Kaczenski’s) group has done a great job here the last few weeks creating pressure, especially out of four-man rush. Hopefully we can keep these guys contained, and that’ll kind of limit the routes we’ll have to cover and also the time.”
Joseph said his defensive backs need to figure plays may last 4-5 seconds without pressure before routes break down, after that it’s crucial to match in man coverage and finish the down.